The Real Reason Women Wear High Heels

September 2nd 2015

Many women love to maneuver in strappy stilettos like baby giraffes, but do you know how that shoe style really started?

The original founders of the footwear, according to Lisa Wade, Ph.D., were actually men.

Wade is an associate professor of sociology at Occidental College and is currently a visiting professor at Loyola University New Orleans. Her writing on the subject, published on Alternet and The Society Pages, explains why heels remain so popular. ATTN: recently caught up with Wade, who is also a self-described heel-wearer, to ask more about this fascinating history.

ATTN: How did heels become so popular?

LW: Scholars trace the emergence of high heels as a form of footwear to the military. In the 1500s, the Persian army innovated the heel as a way to keep their feet in the stirrups. They needed to be nimble on horses. The European aristocracy very much admired the Persian army. They were considered the most brutal and successful army in the world. As usual, when someone admires someone, they started copying them. Aristocrats started wearing heels to make connections to the men they admired. It’s really no different from young men wearing Air Jordan tennis shoes. Men use them to make a connection between themselves and Michael Jordan, an ideal form of masculinity.

As with all fashion, once the elite adopt it, it tends to filter down. So both women and men, just your average middle-class laborers, they all start wearing heels.

This, of course, was no good for the aristocracy. A main point of fashion is to draw distinctions between the rich and the not so rich. King Louis XIV started making laws that no one could wear heels as high as him. In at least one of the American colonies, women who wore high heels were accused of being witches.

Ultimately, the elite men of European society lost control of high heels and stopped wearing them altogether. This was about the same time as the Enlightenment, so they redefined high heels as irrational and used their popularity among women and less elite men to make fun of them. They’ve been in and out of fashion ever since. At least one scholar thinks that the contemporary popularity of high heels among women can be traced to pornography and the eroticism of high heels. We see fashion trickle out of pornography quite frequently. For example, we see that with body hair. The disappearance of women’s pubic hair and men’s removing of chest hair is theorized to be coming out of pornography.

What do heels today tell us about history?

LW: We’re at a period of time when women are particularly eroticized as a form of backlash to the overwhelming sameness between men and women. We go to the same schools, we have access to the same jobs…when you actually look at it, there is not a lot of difference between men and women. The body, and fashion as a manipulation of the body, is one of the remaining ways to protect the idea of gender difference.

What do heels symbolize today?

LW: High heels are of the many things women can do to try to make themselves attractive to the hypothetical heterosexual man -- makeup, doing something to their hair, outfits that are flattering -- all of this sends a message to men that women care about men’s opinion of their appearance. It’s saying, “You still get to have the power to approve or disapprove of me.”

When a woman does femininity, it sends a message: "Don’t worry, I know I’m still a woman and you’re still a man," and that’s really reassuring [to some] on a subconscious level. High heels are a great way to do that.

Even if they hurt, why are women today still wearing heels?

LW: I think high heels make women feel empowered in two ways.

One is through powerful men’s sponsorship, endorsement, and approval. That is power. It’s kind of a power by association. This is a patriarchal bargain. Instead of having power directly, she aligns herself with powerful men. It’s power, but it’s a fragile power because it can be taken away at any time.

The other thing high heels represent is a way of trying to get masculine power. Women today have learned, and are told from the time they are in diapers, that if they want to be equal with men, they should do what men do. They should play sports, be assertive, have a good career, maybe a career that’s associated with men. We teach women and girls that doing what men do gives us power. Heels give us height. Height is associated with power and masculinity. So, they give us both masculine power and borrowed feminine power through sexualization.

Is there any movement to challenge these gender expectations?

LW: I don’t think that the mainstream discourse allows for that conversation right now. We live in a society that culturally and institutionally privileges men and masculinity. As an individual, the best choice you can make is to negotiate with that power dynamic. That’s what most everybody does. We all make choices that are compatible with our identities and personalities within the system. We all bargain with patriarchy. If you’re a woman, pushing back against high heels means making a choice that might disempower you, even if it’s good for women as a group and the future of gender equality, so it’s a real sacrifice. It’s much easier to try to do just enough masculinity and femininity to maximize one’s direct and indirect forms of power than it is to reject the power structure altogether and strike out in an altogether new direction.

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