Platform Power: A History of Heels
“…the human foot, a masterpiece of engineering
and a work of art!”-Leonardo da Vinci
One of the most powerful—some would argue the most powerful—parts of a woman’s wardrobe is a fitting pair of heels. And by ‘fitting’ I mean the heel is the right heel in color, size, shape, and purpose. Purpose, especially, is very important: Are you wearing wedges simply for a little added height? Are you trying to captivate an audience with a six-inch stiletto? Are you the boss lady sporting a pair of black pumps? There are many different kinds of heels out there from kitten heel to the platform stiletto which recently took over the feet of the models in the Fall/Winter runway shows. A beautiful outfit gets a tremendous power boost with a pair of heels, and the wearer also gets a boost: Heels make you stand differently—your breasts jut out, along with your bottom, hips get thrown around, and your body takes on a sultry, ready-to-mate stance that drives guys crazy.
But where did the idea of heels first come from? How long have they been around? Don’t you people ever think about this stuff??
Let’s start with the definition of ‘heel’. Dictionary.com defines ‘heel’ as: (noun) a solid, raised base or support of leather, wood, rubber, etc. attached to the sole of a shoe or boot under the back part of the foot. Merriam-Webster defines it as: “solid attachment of a shoe or boot forming the back of the sole under the heel of the foot.”
Before ‘heel’, however, had to come ‘shoe’, right? One of the earliest ancient peoples to develop a variety of footwear was the Chinese. Woven and stitched straw shoes date as far back as 5000 b.c.e. Tanned leather footwear with elaborate stitching dates back to around 2000 b.c.e. China has a variety of climates, so straw sandals were more in keeping with the warmer climate regions, while thick leather shoes and knee high boots were used in the colder mountainous parts. Another culture of skilled shoemakers was the ancient Egyptians; their murals and tombs started depicting sandals around 1500 b.c.e. While footwear was largely unnecessary due to the warm climate, when they did appear, the sandals were woven of either reeds or leather pieces (the latter more for the wealthy). If the sandals were held on with straps, the straps were wrapped around the calf in the shape of the “ankh”, the symbol of life.
Eventually, all soles were no longer created equal, and platforms and heels were introduced.
Ancient Romans wore platform peep toe sandals or “cothurns” to lift their feet out of the mud and garbage in the streets. These high platforms had either wood or cork soles. Different heel heights represented different social standing. Either high class or butcher—wore platform shoes to walk all over the “offal”
Heels have been worn by both sexes over the centuries; one of the earliest recorded instances of men and women wearing an elevated shoe comes from Hellenic times. Two thousand years ago on the Greek stage male actors wore heels for a more commanding presence on stage. Ancient Chinese, Turkish, Japanese cultures made use of heels for both sexes. In Asia heels were mostly reserved for the upper class, courts and concubines.
Heels were proven useful for riding horses, as they kept the rider’s feet in the stirrups. Mongolian horsemen took advantage of this, while the Knights of Richard the Lionhearted simply wore “sollerets”, or downward curved pointed shoes.
In the mid-1500’s heels, the “Chopin” platform shoe became popular. The height of which was between 6-16”, even sometimes 30”, involved the use of walking sticks and help from servants.
Another patron of the heel was Catherine de Medici, some might call her the mother of the high heel. The de Medici family was extremely powerful and ruled over Florence while creating powerful unions through marriages all around Europe. At 14 years old, Catherine was set to wed the Duke of Orleans, who was to become the next King of France. Catherine would be their Queen, and she was extremely intimidated by the French court. She sought out a friend, (who also happened to be a cobbler) and confided her worries to him. His solution? He took out the clunky wooden soles from her shoes and replaced them with padded four inch heels. With added inches and a new swagger, Catherine dazzled the courts and the love of heels flourished.
It wasn’t just height-challenged Queens that sought out the advantage of false height; in 1660 shoemaker Nicholas Lestage designed high heeled shoes for Louis XIV. Some of the heels were higher than four inches, and most depicted battle scenes. They shoes went on to be nicknamed “Louis heels” or “pompadour heels”.
After the Renaissance (post 17th century) heels spread down to the lower levels of society and heels were no longer worn just by the wealthy.
However, in France during the French Revolution, heels were associated with opulence, a look people were trying to avoid at the time. Heels were mostly eliminated from the market.
Post World War II, Rosie the Riveter turned feminine, when baby making was on everyone’s minds. Also at this time, a few changes in the design of the heel helped spur its popularity. For instance, a steel core replaced the breakable wood heel, making new heights imaginable.
And along came the Queen of height: the stiletto. Beautiful dagger! There is an unfounded theory that Leonardo da Vinci was the very first designer of the killer heel. I wouldn’t have trouble believing that, seeing as the guy thought of the helicopter. A key contributor was Roger Vivier, a French designer credited with the aforementioned steel-inside-wood model. In 1954, Vivier presented the stiletto to the house of Dior.
Heels have captivated both men and women since their arrival. Women lust after them and men lust after the women inside of them. There are many different kinds of heels such as the flat heel, low heel, chunky heel, kitten heel, stiletto heel, cone heel, spool heel, and the wedge. Take your pick! Or as June Swann, shoe historian puts it: “it’s like the circus. You can learn to walk on anything if you put your mind to it.”
History of Platform Shoes