High-heeled footwear

"High Heels" redirects here. For the film by Pedro Almodóvar, see High Heels (film).
A pair of pumps/court shoes with 12 cm (4 ¾") stiletto heels
High-heeled sandals
Russian empress Catherine the Great's mules
An example of an Ellie-821, an 8-inch (20 cm) clear high heel

High-heeled footwear (often abbreviated as high heels or simply heels) is footwear that raises the heel of the wearer's foot significantly higher than the toes. When both the heel and the toes are raised equal amounts, as in a platform shoe, it is technically not considered to be a high heel; however, there are also high-heeled platform shoes. High heels tend to give the aesthetic illusion of longer, more slender legs. High heels come in a wide variety of styles, and the heels are found in many different shapes, including stiletto, pump (court shoe), block, tapered, blade, and wedge.

According to the Spine Health Institute,[1] 72% of women will wear high heels at some point. Annual statistics of women wearing high heels daily have fluctuated between 1986 to 2003, from 68% to 39%. Women wearing high heels daily according to age, were split into three ranges: 49% of women 18–24 years old; 42% of women 25–49 years old and 34% of women ages 50 and older. Women wear heels for different reasons, such as: special occasions (77%), parties and dinner (50%), dancing (33%), and to work (31%).[1]

According to high-fashion shoe websites like Jimmy Choo and Gucci, a "low heel" is considered less than 2.5 inches (6.4 centimeters), while heels between 2.5 and 3.5 inches (6.4 and 8.9 cm) are considered "mid heels", and anything over that is considered a "high heel". The apparel industry would appear to take a simpler view: the term "high heels" covers heels ranging from 2 to 5 inches (5.1 to 12.7 cm) or more. Extremely high-heeled shoes, such as those exceeding 6 inches (15 cm), strictly speaking, are no longer considered apparel but rather something akin to "jewelry for the feet". They are worn for display or the enjoyment of the wearer.


High heels are not a modern invention but there is confusion regarding when it was developed. Research shows that high heels can be traced back to ancient Egypt. The research has not determined who wore high heels during this period. However, as per common assumption, aristocracy wore heels to set themselves apart from the lower classes.[2] In the middle of the second millennium BC, Egyptians began to frequently uses sandals. Retention was obtained generally by the Egyptians by a T or V thong passing through the sole.[3] Egyptian butchers also wore heeled shoes for practical purposes, that is, in order to keep their feet clean of any blood while slaughtering animals. Murals have been found dating back to 3500 BC, which depict an early version of what is thought to be high heels, being worn by the aristocracy. Both men and women wore them and it is thought they were used for ceremonial purposes.[2]

Things started to change when during the European renaissance, the high heel became a status symbol worn by both male and females from the higher social statuses. Catherine de Medici a Franco/Italian noblewomen pioneered the use of heels as a fashion statement. Catherine de Medici is believed to have worn them to impress the French court when she wed the Duke of Orleans, the future king. It is believed to be the first instance when heels were worn however, this reference may be apocryphal, as the development of heels did not begin to come about until the late 1580s, based on iconographic evidence and extant pieces.[4] Two hundred years later King Louis XIV of France decreed that only nobility could wear heels. Seventeenth-century portraits of King Louis XIV depict the various intricate heels worn by the king and they were often decorated with miniature battle scenes. Men were the first to start wearing high heels in the early sixteenth century. It was a practice donned by the European aristocracy in the 1600s as a sign of status. The reasoning behind th[5] is choice of footwear was that only someone who didn’t have to partake in manual labor could travel around in such impractical footwear.[2]

During the 16th century, European royalty, such as Catherine de Medici and Mary I of England, started wearing high-heeled shoes to make them look taller or larger than life. By 1580, men wore them, and a person with authority or wealth was often referred to as "well-heeled". Since the French Revolution (1789-1799) the trend wearing high heels was ended to avoid any associating with the old aristocracy and its opulence. Since people wished to avoid the appearance of wealth, heels were largely eliminated from the common market for both men and women and replace by casual fashion and shoe wear. From the beginning of the Baroque the heel came back to shoes.[6]

It is sometimes suggested that raised heels were a response to the problem of the rider's foot slipping forward in stirrups while riding.[7] The "rider's heel", approximately 1 12 inches (3.8 cm) high, appeared in Europe around 1600.[8] The leading edge was canted forward to help grip the stirrup, and the trailing edge was canted forward to prevent the elongated heel from catching on underbrush or rock while backing up, such as in on-foot combat. These features are evident today in riding boots, notably cowboy boots.

Woman's shoe with a Louis heel, 1760–1765. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, M.81.71.2a-b.
An example of a high wedge-heeled sandals

Mary Tudor, another short monarch, wore heels as high as possible.[5] From this period until the early 19th century, high heels were frequently in vogue for both sexes. Around 1660, a shoemaker named Nicholas Lestage designed high heeled shoes for Louis XIV. Some were more than four inches (ten cm), and most were decorated in various battle scenes. The resulting high "Louis heels" subsequently became fashionable for ladies. Today the term is used to refer to heels with a concave curve and outward taper at the bottom similar to those worn by Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV's mistress. (They are also sometimes called "Pompadour heels".)

Contemporary scene

Since the Second World War, high heels have fallen in and out of popular fashion several times, most notably in the late 1990s, when lower heels and even flats predominated. Lower heels were preferred during the late 1960s and early 1970s as well, but higher heels returned in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The shape of the fashionable heel has changed from block (1970s) to tapered (1990s), and stiletto (1950s, early 1960s, 1980s, and post-2000).

Today, high heels are typically worn with heights varying from a kitten heel of 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) to a stiletto heel (or spike heel) of 5 inches (13 cm) or more. Extremely high-heeled shoes, such as those higher than 6 inches (15 cm), are normally worn only for aesthetic reasons and are not considered practical. Court shoes have conservative styles and are often used for work and formal occasions, while more adventurous styles are common for evening wear and dancing. High heels have caused significant controversy in the medical field lately, with many podiatrists seeing patients whose severe foot problems have been caused almost exclusively by high-heel wear.[9]

The wedge heel is informally another style of the heel, where the heel is in a wedge form and continues all the way to the toe of the shoe.[10]

In terms of design, high heels can be seen with plain construction or with embellishment. Depending on the design concept, embellishment materials include leather, wood, metal chain, plastic appliqués, lace, and others. The majority of embellishments are for aesthetic purposes. The rest are for functional support.[11]

Pros and cons

The case against wearing high heels is based almost exclusively on health and practical reasons.[12] They can cause foot and tendon pain, increase the likelihood of sprains and fractures, create foot deformities, including hammer toes and bunions, cause an unsteady gait and can exacerbate lower back pain.[13]

The case for wearing high heels is based almost exclusively on aesthetic reasons, including that they change the angle of the foot with respect to the lower leg, which accentuates the appearance of calves and make the wearer appear taller. According to a single line of research, they may improve the muscle tone of some women's pelvic floor, thus possibly reducing female incontinence,[14][15][16] although these results have been disputed.[17]

Types of high heels

Types of heels found on high-heeled footwear include:[18]

Men and heels

Elizabeth Semmelhack, curator for the Bata Shoe Museum, traces the high heel to male horse-riding warriors in the Middle East who used high heels for functionality, because they help hold the rider's foot in stirrups. She states that the earliest high heel she has seen is depicted on a 9th-century AD ceramic bowl from Persia.[7]

Since the late 18th century, men's shoes have featured lower heels than most women's shoes. Some attribute it to Napoleon who disliked high heels; others to the general trend of minimizing non-functional items in men's clothing.[19] Cowboy boots remain a notable exception, and they continue to be made with a taller riding heel. The two-inch (5 cm) Cuban heel featured in many styles of men's boot derives its heritage from certain Latino roots, most notably various forms of Spanish and Latin American dance, including Flamenco, as most recently evidenced by Joaquín Cortés. Cuban heels were first widely popularized by Beatle boots, as worn by the English rock group The Beatles during their introduction to the United States. Some say this saw the re-introduction of higher-heeled footwear for men in the 1960s and 1970s,[20][21] in Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta's character wears a Cuban heel in the opening sequence. The singers Prince and Elton John were known to wear high heels. Bands such as Mötley Crüe and Sigue Sigue Sputnik predominantly wore high heels during the 1980s. Current well-known male heel wearers include Justin Tranter, lead singer of Semi Precious Weapons, and Bill Kaulitz, the lead singer of Tokio Hotel. Popular R&B singer Miguel was wearing his trademark Cuban heels during the "legdrop" incident at the 2013 Billboard Music Awards.Winklepicker boots often feature a Cuban heel.

Although high-heeled shoes or boots have more often been worn by women, in various times and places they have been standard features of men's footwear too, either for practical reasons or as fashionable items. Mongolian horsemen were among the first to use heels as means to keep their feet from sliding out of their stirrups. Actors playing tragic roles in ancient Greek drama wore the buskin, a boot with a platform sole, designed to give them greater height over other actors.

The Romans, both men and women, wore cothurns, or sandals with platform heels; these were intended to lift the wearers above mud and garbage in the streets. Geta, which are based on a similar concept, are still used in Japan today. American cowboy boots, first developed in the 19th century and still popular today in some parts of the United States, have high underslung heels to keep a rider's foot from sliding through the stirrup. High-heeled platform shoes were a widely popular form of men's footwear during the 1970s.

Women and Heels

Even though men started wearing heels as symbols of power, it soon shifted to women and became normalized as women's fashion wear. Over the past few years, the length of high heels has reached an extreme, going up to as high as 9 inches. The reason behind this seems to be the sexualization of high heels and the association of them with femininity. Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto put up more than sixty pairs of rare shoes in 2010. A pair of Spanish Chopines from around 1580-1620 were part of the exhibition and it measured nearly 20 inches. The senior curator, Elizabeth Semmelhack, states that "excessively high chopines in Italy offered the opportunity for more fabric to be displayed but it also offered the opportunity for servants to be displayed." Semmelhack further explains that women in these excessively high heels couldn't walk without the help of two servants. This is the reason why men still offer their arm to women as a polite gesture. Later the Venetian Major Council banned Chopines higher than 3 and a half inches as it was a threat to God and his position. However, people continued to wear it. The most famous wearers of these high heels were the Venetian prostitutes.[2]

By the early 2000s, designer heels were perceived as “power tools” — as one Times story called them — to be used, like lingerie, by professional women to manipulate people through the “power” of sex appeal, an idea that continues to resonate to this day. New York Times notes in the article, Shoes That Put Women In Their Place , that "linking sex appeal to power also clearly suggests that women have a very short window of opportunity for when they can be seen as powerful. The common comment about the Cannes debacle — that a handful of middle-aged women in flats were turned away — illustrates this issue. In an apologist manner, this observation seemed to suggest that perhaps if these women hadn’t been so aged they wouldn’t have worn sensible shoes. Never mind what accomplishments or connections brought them to the festival."[1]

Furthermore, there is a popular association between high heels and women as erotic objects. In modern society, high-heeled shoes are a part of women's fashion, perhaps more as a sexual prop. High heels force the body to tilt, emphasizing the buttocks and breasts. They emphasize the role of feet in sexuality, and the act of putting on stockings or high heels is often seen as an erotic act.[22] This desire to look sexy and erotic continues to drive women to wear high-heeled shoes, despite causing significant pain in the ball of the foot, or bunions or corns, or hammer toe. A survey conducted by the American Podiatric Medical Association showed some 42% of women admitted that they would wear a shoe they liked even if it gave them discomfort.[23] Dietz and Evans (1982) in an analysis of the cover photographs of pornographic magazines noted that over 50% involved women wearing high heels. We investigated the hypothesis that the association between high heels and female sexuality is partly a function of the effect of high heels on how women walk; high heels may have the effect of exaggerating the sex-specific aspects of female gait. In their research, they predicted that women wearing high heels would be rated as more attractive, feminine and younger. In a second judgment study, participants were asked to categorize the same point-light walkers as male or female even though they were in fact, all female. They predicted that more females wearing flat shoes would be incorrectly categorized as male than females wearing high heels. These predictions were true once the research was conducted.[24]

Health effects

Foot and tendon problems

High-heeled shoes slant the foot forward and down while bending the toes up. The more the feet are forced into this position, the more it may cause the gastrocnemius muscle (part of the calf muscle) to shorten.[25] This may cause problems when the wearer chooses lower heels or flat-soled shoes. When the foot slants forward, a much greater weight is transferred to the ball of the foot and the toes, increasing the likelihood of damage to the underlying soft tissue that supports the foot. In many shoes, style dictates function, either compressing the toes or forcing them together, possibly resulting in blisters, corns, hammer toes, bunions (hallux valgus), Morton's neuroma, plantar fasciitis and many other medical conditions, most of which are permanent and require surgery to alleviate the pain. High heels, because they tip the foot forward, put pressure on the lower back by making the rump push outwards, crushing the lower back vertebrae and contracting the muscles of the lower back. Research also shows that Achilles tendon stiffness increases after long-term use of high heels.[26]

One of the most critical problems of high-heeled shoe design involves a properly constructed toe-box. Improper construction here can cause the most damage to one's foot. Toe-boxes that are too narrow force the toes to be crammed too close together. Ensuring that room exists for the toes to assume a normal separation so that high-heel wear remains an option rather than a debilitating practice is an important issue in improving the wearability of high-heeled fashion shoes.

Wide heels do not necessarily offer more stability, and any raised heel with too much width, such as found in "blade-heeled" or "block-heeled" shoes, induces unhealthy side-to-side torque to the ankles with every step, stressing them unnecessarily, while creating an additional impact on the balls of the feet. Thus, the best design for a high heel is one with a narrower width, where the heel is closer to the front, more solidly under the ankle, where the toe box provides room enough for the toes, and where forward movement of the foot in the shoe is kept in check by material snug across the instep, rather than by the toes being rammed forward and jamming together in the toe box or crushed into the front of the toe box.

Pelvic floor muscle tone

A 2008 study by Cerruto et al. reported results that suggest that wearing high heels may improve the muscle tone of a woman's pelvic floor.[16] The authors speculated that this could have a beneficial effect on female stress urinary incontinence.

Feminist attitudes

The high heel has been a central battleground of sexual politics ever since the emergence of the women's liberation movement of the 1970s. Many second-wave feminists rejected what they regarded as constricting standards of female beauty, created for the subordination and objectifying of women and self-perpetuated by reproductive competition and women's own aesthetics.[27]

The American-British journalist Hadley Freeman wrote, "For me, high heels are just fancy foot binding with a three-figure price tag", although she supported the freedom to choose what to wear and stated that "one person's embrace of their sexuality is another person's patriarchal oppression."[28]

Many feminists believe that high heels make them feel tall and empowered; however, others argue that it is just an outcome of social conditioning of what femininity means. Claudia Wobovnik, in her essay, These Shoes Aren´t Made for Walking Rethinking High-Heeled Shoes as Cultural Artifacts, talks about the reformation of high heels from products made for men to products that define femininity today. The reformation of what femininity means is problematic for many feminists as high heels continue to be a product designed by men that were given up by them because of the discomfort caused. The hand down of heels to women from men enforces the patriarchal power structures and is reminiscent of that for many feminists today.[29]

See also


  1. 1 2 3 Semmelhack, Elizabeth (23 May 2015). "Shoes That Put Women In Their Place". Spine Health Institute. New York Times. Archived from the original on 7 April 2016. Retrieved 5 November 2016.
  2. 1 2 3 4 King, Amber. "The History of the High Heel Sex, Gender and Status". Academia.org.
  3. Stewart, Steele. Footgear – Its History, Uses and Abuses.
  4. "Raised Heel Paintings and Drawings (in approximate decreasing height)". Archived from the original on 2010-06-11. Retrieved 2016-06-08.
  5. 1 2 "The Mystery of High- Heeled Shoes: the Past and the Present" (PDF). shs.edu.
  6. Sieger, Nadine (2015). SHOES - Warum Frauen nicht ohne sie leben können. Verlag Herder GmbH. p. 128. ISBN 9783451803949.
  7. 1 2 Keane, Maribeth; Monte, Bonnie (18 June 2010). "Sex, Power, and High Heels: An Interview with Shoe Curator Elizabeth Semmelhack". Collectors Weekly. Archived from the original on 12 April 2016.
  8. Kremer, William (25 January 2013). "Why did men stop wearing high heels?". BBC News. Archived from the original on 12 March 2016. Retrieved February 3, 2013.
  9. Heid, Markham (6 May 2015). "You Asked: Do High Heels Actually Damage My Feet?". Time. Archived from the original on 21 April 2016. Retrieved 23 June 2016.
  10. Stimpert, Desiree (7 April 2016). "Wedge Heels: What to Wear with Them". Shoes.about.com. Archived from the original on 13 March 2016.
  11. "Look into the Design of These Stilettos with Embellishment". Heeladdict.com. 2016. Archived from the original on 5 February 2016.
  12. Robinson, Caroline (23 February 2014). "Health Check: how high heels harm and how to make it better". The Conversation. Archived from the original on 4 June 2016. Retrieved 25 February 2014.
  13. Saltzman. "A History of Medical Scientists on High Heels.". University of Iowa College of Law. |first1= missing |last1= in Authors list (help)
  14. "High heels 'may improve sex life'". BBC News. 4 February 2008. Archived from the original on 2 June 2016. Retrieved 30 April 2016.
  15. Burkhard, Fiona. "Female urology and reconstruction". UroSource. Archived from the original on 29 March 2014. Retrieved 29 March 2014.
  16. 1 2 Cerruto, Maria Angela; Vedovi, Ermes; Mantovanic, William (2008). "Women pay attention to shoe heels: besides causing schizophrenia they might affect your pelvic floor muscle activity!!". European Urology. 53 (5): 1094–5. doi:10.1016/j.eururo.2008.01.046. PMID 18243504. Archived from the original on 1 April 2016.
  17. Bowman, Katy (29 August 2011). "High Heels, Pelvic Floor, and Bad Science". Nutritious Movement. Archived from the original on 26 December 2015.
  18. "Glossary of Terms for Women's Shoe Styles". Sizefitguide.com. n.d. Archived from the original on 3 July 2016.
  19. Avins, Jenni (23 May 2015). "Why did men stop wearing high heels, anyway?". Quartz. Archived from the original on 18 June 2016. Retrieved 24 May 2015.
  20. Kippen, Cameron. "Beatle Boots". The History of Boots. Department of Podiatry. Archived from the original on 13 December 2007. Retrieved 11 October 2007. The Beatle Boot saw the reintroduction of heels for men.
  21. "Modern Living: The Elevated Look". Time. 21 August 1972. Archived from the original on 30 September 2007. Retrieved 30 April 2016.
  22. Danesi, Marcel (1999). Of Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things: An Introduction to Semiotics. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 13. ISBN 978-0312210847.
  23. Bouchez, Colette (n.d.). "Tips to Avoid Foot Pain From High Heels". WebMD. Archived from the original on 20 May 2016. Retrieved 8 July 2010.
  24. Morris, Paul. "High Heels as Supernormal Stimuli: How Wearing High Heels Affects Judgements of Female Attractiveness". ResearchGate, University of Portsmouth.
  25. Narici, Marco; et al. (2010). "On muscle, tendon and high heels". The Journal of Experimental Biology. doi:10.1242/jeb.044271. Archived from the original on 20 April 2016. Research by Marco Narici et al. determined that persistent usage of high-heeled shoes causes the calf muscle to shorten – an average of 13% in their study – while the Achilles tendon becomes significantly thicker and stiffer. See The Economist, 17 July 2010, p. 84 for discussion.
  26. Neil, Connor; Barrett, Rod; Carty, Christopher. "Long-term Use of High-heeled Shoes Alters the Neuromechanics of Human Walking". University of Jyväskylä, Finland.
  27. Feldman, Sally (7 May 2008). "Heights of madness". New Humanist. Archived from the original on 5 March 2016. Retrieved 30 April 2016.
  28. Freeman, Hadley (28 January 2013). "Can a feminist wear high heels?". The Guardian. London, United Kingdom. Archived from the original on 14 May 2016. Retrieved 22 November 2014.
  29. Claudia, Wobovnik (2013). "These Shoes Aren´t Made for Walking Rethinking High-Heeled Shoes as Cultural Artifact s" (PDF). Viusal Culture and Gender. 8.
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