A Short History of Men in High Heels

Persian Riding Boot, 17th c. Image © 2017 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Ontario

With our annual fundraising event, Walk a Mile, just two weeks away, I thought I’d dust off my recently retired historian cap and share a brief capsule about how heels weren’t always “her shoes”.

Haec-vir: or the Womanish-Man (1620)

Heels likely originated in Central Asia. This innovation, combined with the stirrup, helped horsemen gain steadiness in the saddle, especially when wielding a lance or bow. These innovations allowed for the emergence of great empires such as the Persian Sassanids and the Mongols whose skilled horsemanship secured their military dominance.[1]

It took several centuries for the heel to travel from Asia to Western Europe. It was only during the 17th century that European men adopted it – women who dared to wear heels were criticized and called “mannish”.[2] 

Hyacinthe Rigaud, Portrait of Louis XIV in Coronation Robes (1701)

As this famous portrait of French King Louis XIV demonstrates heels became the epitome of manliness. Louis was a talented ballet dancer and a skilled horseman, as evidenced by this depiction of his toned legs. Louis was also determined to set the French court apart and the red leather heel became the exclusive privilege of his court. During the 17th century, high heel shoes were central to European elite masculinity. Heeled riding boots and sophisticated court shoes became expressions of martial skill and refinement, the two main components of elite manhood.[3] 

A century later, during the Enlightenment, heels fell out of favour since masculine ideals and, by extension, men’s fashion placed more emphasis on practicality, sobriety, and action.[4] By contrast, feminine fashion embraced the heel since the shoe’s impracticality served to emphasize the idle lifestyle expected from upper-class women.[5]

Walk a Mile in her Shoes, “Standing Tall” exhibit, Bata Shoe Museum

The heel may have fallen out of mainstream masculine fashion at the beginning of the 19th century, but it did not completely disappear. It was a staple of the American cowboy attire in the second half of the 19th century.[6] More recently, rock stars such as the Beatles, Elton John, and Gene Simmons used high heels as fashion and artistic statements.[7]

You too could put on a pair of heels to make a statement. On May 31st, hundreds of men will don a pair of high heels to end violence against women and girls. Join White Ribbon for our Walk a Mile in her Shoes event and take a bit of a higher stand on women’s rights.   

(To learn more about the history of men in heels, visit the exhibit “Standing Tall” at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto.)

  • Véronique Church-Duplessis, Project Manager

[1] Elizabeth Semmelhack, Standing Tall: The Curious History of Men in Heels (Toronto: The Bata Shoe Museum Foundation, 2015), 11-12.

[2] Semmelhack, Standing Tall, 29-31.

[2] Semmelhack, Standing Tall, 22-33.

[3] Semmelhack, Standing Tall, 36-42.

[4] William Kremer, “Why did men stop wearing high heels?” BBC World Service, 25 January 2013. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-21151350

[5] Semmelhack, Standing Tall, 51-52.

[6] Semmelhack, Standing Tall, 68-75.
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Also published on Medium.