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History of the high heel: It wasn't always a woman's shoe

man and woman - legs only with shoes, standing on steps
Women's footwear is often more complicated that men's, but it was not always that way.

Unsplash: Sarah Cervantes

It's a dilemma many women face when they go out — do they want to elongate their legs by wearing high heeled shoes for an event, or still be able to feel their feet at the end of the night?

After events like the Spring Racing Carnival, it is common to see many women abandon their shoes and limp home barefoot.

And while men are perceived to be well turned out at any event in flat shoes, the high heel trend, believe it or not, began with them.

"The origins of the heel relates to horse riding and warriors and the ability to hold tight to the saddle," podiatrist and shoe historian Cameron Kippen told ABC Radio Perth

"Subsequently you had these macho men swaggering about in boots with heels, but they very quickly became fashionable for rich courtiers and kings in particular."

A pair of men's mules from England c1690-1715
When men still wore heels: A pair of men's mules from England c1690-1715.

Suppied: Bata Shoe Museum

The first recorded instance of a high heeled shoe being worn by a woman was by Catherine de Medici in the 16th century.

She was about 150 centimetres tall and it is said she wanted to appear taller at her wedding.

Up until that time, women had been wearing platform shoes, some as high as 60 centimetres, in 16th century Europe.

"Shoemakers realised they could give women height but they needed to make them safer, so they carved out the front of the platform and created a high heel which was biomechanically more sound than platforms."

During the reign of King Louis XIV of France, some 200 years later, wearing heels really began to take off — but again, among men.

Portrait of Louis XIV, 1700s, after Hyacinthe Rigaud - detail of feet
A detail from a portrait of Louis XIV in the 1700s, showing the red heeled shoes he restricted to a favoured few.

Wikimedia Commons

"After de Medici died, that was the end of heeled shoes for women in terms of fashion," Mr Kippen said.

"Women started to wear lower heels, but men liked this idea of towering above everyone else — and no one more than Louis XIV, who of course gave his name to an actual heel itself.

"He would parade around with very tight fitting high heeled shoes, very highly decorated.

"His critical badge of honour was a red heel, and he wouldn't allow anybody else in the French court to wear them."

Woman's yellow silk shoe with louis heel, England, circa 1760-1765.
A yellow silk heel from England, circa 1760-1765, with a 'Louis' heel, named for the style worn at the court of Louis XIV.

Wikimedia Commons

Heels in the French court at Versailles were an important status symbol and restricted to the nobility.

"In those days there were fewer people wanting to be fashionable.

"Ordinary people would go about their business with no trouble at all, whereas it was the courtiers and those that had privilege and money that would want to outdo each other.

"Therefore, trying to emulate the royal family in whatever country you were in was something that was governed against."

Women (legs only) in stiletto heels
Stiletto heels were developed after World War II, and have been in style ever since.

Unsplash: Kris Atomic

The right to wear heels eventually extended to the general population, but they remained chunky until after the end of World War II.

"The secret of the stiletto heel was a small piece of metal which joined the inside of the shoes sufficiently that the heel and foot of the shoe could operate separately. It could actually bend and twist.

"It's known as a shank.

"Once a shoe designer managed to work that out, then heels became more like what we see today.

"In the past heels were more like arch supports. They sat much closer to the middle of the foot, whereas now they can sit right at the end of the shoe."

Initially, the creation of the stiletto heel was a cause of great consternation.

"In all the ballrooms at the time, the owners were very much concerned," Mr Kippen said.

"There was much warning and health foreboding about the things that would happen if you wore stiletto heels."

Woman stands barefoot, heels in hand amongst shoes and litter on the grass
A long day in high heels often ends in bare feet and sore toes, as this punter at the Melbourne Cup found last year.

ABC News: Margaret Burin

Blisters aside, Mr Kippen said there was little evidence that high heeled shoes caused long-term health problems for wearers.

"We have lived half a century past that time and there is no evidence to show that people who wear these for a prolonged period would have foot or back problems at all," he said.