High Heels Were Originally Made For Soldiers

By Alex Brannan on Monday, May 19, 2014
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“The glass of fashion and the mould of form, / The observ’d of all observers.” —William Shakespeare, Hamlet

In A Nutshell

Well before it was a fixture of women’s fashion, the high-heeled shoe was used in the 16th century by Persian soldiers on horseback. The shoes gave the soldiers stability in the stirrups so they could use their bow and arrows more efficiently. Later, in 17th-century Europe, the shoe caught on as a fashion statement for the aristocracy. Around the 1630s, women started adopting masculine fashion trends, and this is when women began wearing high heels.

The Whole Bushel

High heels are largely thought of as objects of fashion and sex appeal that are mainly worn by females. They are also rarely looked upon as a practical shoe, most of the time being considered an uncomfortable addition to a person’s wardrobe. However, the history of this oddly shaped footwear tells a much different story.

The oldest-known recordings of the high heel date back to the late 16th century. They are two paintings, estimated to have been created between 1591 and 1593, that depict Persian warriors on horseback wearing the now-fashionable shoe. The two art pieces can be found at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and they give insight into the true origins of the high heel.

It is now thought by historians that the high heel was shaped in such a way as to make riding on horseback easier. The shoe was not meant for traveling by foot but rather to fit snugly into stirrups. This proved to be efficient for soldiers, who could use the heels to more safely stand up on their stirrups as they rode. Once standing and stabilized with the help of his shoes, a soldier could more efficiently use his bow and arrow.

This method of using high heels to strengthen an army was employed by the Persian Empire under the Safavid dynasty, and it proved to be hugely successful. By the end of the 16th century, the Persian army was the largest in the world, and the Persian Empire was on the verge of expanding its territory. Under the rule of Shah Abbas I, who had come into power in a period where the country was chaotic and failing, the Persian Empire defeated the Uzbeks to re-establish the country’s borders and continued to expand into modern-day Iraq by defeating the Ottomans. With this newly acquired territory, Abbas I obtained total control of trade in the Persian Gulf. During this period of conquest, the army was pivotal in the creation of a prosperous Persian state, and they found success through the use of high heels.

How, then, did a practical utility of war come to be one of the most used staples of fashion? Abbas I wished to seek help from the powers of Western Europe in order to defeat the Ottomans. In 1599, he sent Persian diplomats to Russia, Germany, and Spain. This caused a culture shift in Europe, where interest in Persian styles and customs skyrocketed. The high-heeled riding shoes were no exception. Quickly, the trend of wearing high heels spread through the European aristocracy, becoming a symbol of power and masculinity. By the early 17th century, high heels were a well-established fashion statement for wealthy men.

Around the 1630s, it become en vogue for women to adopt more masculine fashion trends. Many women began to cut their hair short, smoke pipes, and, you guessed it, wear high heels. Later on, during the Enlightenment, male fashion became centered on a more practical look, which meant the abandonment of jewelry, bright colors, and men’s high heels.

Show Me The Proof

Victoria and Albert Museum Image Collection
BBC Magazine: Why did men stop wearing high heels?
BBC World Service: The Why Factor: The Heel
The British Museum: Shah ‘Abbas—Ruling an empire