Why do women wear high-heel shoes? They are quite impractical, uncomfortable, and can lead to long-term foot health issues. It’s an interesting sociological phenomenon why they are worn at all. A few theories and some facts about high-heel shoes:
- High heels first became popular in 15th century Persia. But they weren’t worn by women. It was men who first wore high-heels. Horse riding soldiers wore them for stability in stirrups in order to be able to shoot a bow and arrow while riding.
- Messengers and traders between the middle east and Europe brought the concept of high-heel shoes to the Europeans. The European aristocracy and elites – again males – adopted the wearing of high-heel shoes. Why? High-heel shoes made you taller and men wanted to be taller and more intimidating. Notably, King Louis XIV was 5’4″ and liked his high heel shoes in order to appear taller.
- The idea of a high-heel being for females took a long time to take hold. Some of the first women to wear high-heel shoes were Italian courtesans. The female wearing of high-heels spread with a fashion trend of women dressing more masculine. In the 1630s there was a trend of women cutting their hair, wearing hats, smoking pipes and wearing high-heels to appear more masculine.
- The French Revolution killed off the desire of Europeans to wear high-heel shoes. The impractical shoes were seen as linked to aristocrats.
- In the 19th Century the high-heel shoe made a comeback, first with risque photographs of women. Many of the early photographs of nude women featured them in high-heels. Basically, the realization occurred that women look fantastic in high-heels as they create height, highlight the calves, appear to lengthen the leg, cause an arch in the back and overall accentuate the female form.
- In addition to complementing the female form, high-heel shoes have signified class and wealth. In his 1899 masterwork “The Theory of the Leisure Class”, economist Thorstein Veblen set forth the theory of conspicuous consumption which states that the wealthy buy flashy goods in order to signal wealth and social status. Veblen theorized that high-heel shoes are a marker of the leisure class: “The woman’s shoe adds the so-called French heel to the evidence of enforced leisure afforded by its polish; because this high heel obviously makes any, even the simplest and most necessary manual work extremely difficult.” Without “superior pecuniary achievement” one does not have the money to buy high-heels or time to wear them. Link to Theory of the Leisure Class: http://moglen.law.columbia.edu/LCS/theoryleisureclass.pdf
Interestingly, Veblen also had this to say about other aspects of women’s dress with respect to conspicuous consumption: “The like is true even in a higher degree of the skirt and the rest of the drapery which characterizes woman’s dress. The substantial reason for our tenacious attachment to the skirt is just this; it is expensive and it hampers the wearer at every turn and incapacitates her for all useful exertion. The like is true of the feminine custom of wearing the hair excessively long. . . .The corset is, in economic theory, substantially a mutilation, undergone for the purpose of lowering the subject’s vitality and rendering her permanently and obviously unfit for work. It is true, the corset impairs the personal attractions of the
wearer, but the loss suffered on that score is offset by the gain in reputability which comes of her visibly increased expensiveness and infirmity. It may broadly be set down that the womanliness of woman’s apparel resolves itself, in point of substantial fact, into the more effective hindrance to useful exertion offered by the garments peculiar to women.”