Gender is not an innate quality nor is it concrete in its views. As Lahle Wolfe explains,‘“sex” refers to our biological and physiological traits; “gender” refers to the roles society assigns people based on their sex’. As we progress as people, cultures and societies so do the definitions of words and concepts alter.
Heels are women’s best-loved accessories and as Rose Feller (played by Toni Collette) rightly says in the 2005 movie In Her Shoes, “When I feel bad I like to treat myself. Clothes never look any good. Food just makes me fatter. Shoes always fit.” There’s just something about retail therapy – particularly the shoe kind – that can make a woman feel better about any situation.
There’s a pair for every occasion, every event, every mood, style and trend. But shoes, our magnificent multipurpose high heels, were not created for women. In fact, women started wearing them to appear more masculine despite that our current 21st-century society has heels as the definition of femininity.
Around since the Egyptians, high heels have a very long and complex history. Growing in popularity in 15th century Persia, created for the sole purpose of helping soldiers secure their positions when standing in stirrups. This allowed better precision when shooting a bow and arrow.
“Heels were intended to be an instrument of war, rather than one of seduction.” – Jennifer Wright
Invading Europe, the male aristocracy snapped them almost instantaneously for the added height that signified dominance, wealth and importance. They weren’t made for comfort as walking was the job of labourers and peasants.
Louis was a great fan of the heels, so much so that he only allowed his close court members to wear a red heel such as his. The red dye was expensive and exclusively worn by the wealthy. By being allowed to don the red, it symbolised that person’s close relationship and favour from Louis. A serious issue with execution for anyone caught wearing a red heel without permission.
Women adopted the heel along with pipe smoking and wearing manly hats, all in an effort to add masculinity to their appearances and dominance over their own looks. As Dita Von Teese beautifully quotes, “Heels and red lipstick will put the fear of God into people”. Armed with lippy and heels, women go out to battle and conquer. Clearly, the tradition and symbolism of the colour red has stayed ingrained in our culture, especially with Christian Louboutin trademark red soles.
Women submerged heels into their images and took them over. For a while, heels were worn equally among aristocracy both male and female, until the French Revolution brought flat shoes into style. The heel faded until the 19th century brought new technologies and men, eager to jump on this, revolutionised the heel to what we associate with them now: women.
French erotic postcard photographers quickly realised the effect a pair of heels had on a woman’s poster and walk: lengthen the leg, creating a sway in the hips, lifting the chest and pushing the rear out. Not ones to pass up an opportunity, women were sexualised through heels and are the reason our 21st-century society associates them purely with women.
Despite their long history, most heels are still a pain to walk in for anything longer than four hours. Hills, slippery surfaces and cobblestone paths are not recommended; it’s a sure way to fall flat on your face.
So, why are our battle beauties such a pain? Scientifically, the height puts pressure under the ball of the foot which travels up ankles, hips and spine. Adding stress to tendons, prolonged wearing of high heels can cause damage to the foot and leg, especially if not adequate time is given to rest. Beauty in pain, some women are happy to make the sacrifice, others aren’t. Just remember ladies, give those legs a rest!
“Strong women wear their pain like stilettos. No matter how much it hurts, all you see is the beauty of it” – anon.
Interestingly, as the times change so does the definition surrounding high heels. You might remember Britain’s Got Talent 2014 entry of three Frenchmen dance group: Yanis Marshall, Arnaud, and Mehdi. The wonderful twist that took the country by storm? Men dancing in heels, very very high heels might I add.
They managed to win over the country, and probably more impressively: Simon Cowell. The only thing more remarkable than their first audition was their superb choreography to a Beyonce soundtrack in the finals. They made dancing in heels look easy.
These men, coincidently French just like the postcard revolution, embody the movement of a new era and the overthrowing of gender stereotypes. We can’t say that heels are feminine because of their origins of creation and we shouldn’t have to. A symbol of masculinity that we embraced continues to shift and change. Perhaps these men are reclaiming what was never intended for women. Perhaps they wish to show equality. Maybe the only reason behind any of it is that they just want to have fun.
Heels: love them or hate them, they make a statement – whatever the gender.