Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1701

Throughout history, heels have been used to elevate perceived social status, communicate privilege, express overt masculinity and to sensually entice. Although specific symbolisms have mutated over time, heels and the attainment of power remain tightly laced. From the courts of 17th century France - where Louis XIV sported the original ‘red-bottom’ - to the platform pedestals worn by the Qing Dynasty’s Manchu women, heels have typically signified dominance over others. Lucia Savi, research assistant for the Victoria and Albert Museum’s recent Shoes: Pleasure and Pain exhibition, spoke to me about the history of the heel.

Chopines, Punched kid leather over carved pine, Venice, Italy, 1600s

Heels, as well as shoes, are deeply connected to the body and to the way we walk. This makes them a very powerful symbolic object.

Evening shoe, beaded silk and leather, France. Roger Vivier for Christian Dior, 1958-60

‘Parakeet’ shoes by Caroline Groves, England 2014. Photo by Dan Lowe

“Heels, as well as shoes, are deeply connected to the body and to the way we walk. This makes them a very powerful symbolic object,” says Savi. Introduced to Europe and Western nations from Asia towards the end of the 16th century, heeled shoes were mostly worn by men - especially in central and western Asia - as they helped to secure the foot in the stirrups whilst riding. As Savi explains, “In the European mind, heels are associated with the military might of Persia (Iran) and with masculinity - so they were enthusiastically adopted by men - and later worn by women and children.”

Chopines, Punched kid leather over carved pine, Venice, Italy, 1600s

 

Heeled shoes were mostly worn by men - especially in central and western Asia - as they helped to secure the foot in the stirrups whilst riding

One sandal, gilded and incised leather and papyrus, Egypt, c30 BCE-300 CE

 

Installation view of Shoes: Pleasure and Pain

By the 17th century, though still worn by men, the heel’s symbolism shifted from solely communicating an overt masculinity to also physically representing socio-political superiority. King Louis XIV of France and his noblemen wore heels to distinguish themselves from the rest of the population. As Giorgio Riello writes in A Foot in the Past: “High heels not only provided higher physical stature, but were also a self-inflicted sign of ‘constrained mobility’. Only the members of the upper classes - men and women alike - could wear shoes that clearly symbolised an inability to walk. At the opposite end of the social spectrum, those whose physical labour constituted their only source of income had to be able to move as freely as possible […] Their use of low heels, rounded toes, and strong leather uppers were unmistakable signs of their inferior social position.”

Installation view of Shoes: Pleasure and Pain

High heels not only provided higher physical stature, but were also a self-inflicted sign of ‘constrained mobility’. Only the members of the upper classes - men and women alike - could wear shoes that clearly symbolised an inability to walk.

Installation view of Shoes: Pleasure and Pain

As the heeled shoe began to democratise, further classification became necessary - enter the talons rouges. In Dressed to Rule, historian Philip Mansel states that the red high heel “became a synonym for French courtiers’ futile insolence.” The crimson-coloured heels “were restricted to nobles with the right genealogical qualifications to be presented at court,” demonstrating that noblemen did not dirty their soles as common folk did. However, as Savi tells me, the coloured heel “was emulated by nobles across Europe. Square-shaped, but still very high, heels - sometimes reaching 8cm in height - became highly fashionable for men.”A contemporary interpretation of King Louis XIV’s court could be a sea of male parliamentary figures in 8cm-high red-soled Christian Louboutins, a vision which nowadays does not emanate thoughts of an ‘overt masculinity’ given our current socially-constructed definition of the ideal.

Christian Louboutin 'Pigalle' pump. Installation view of Shoes: Pleasure and Pain

Square-shaped, but still very high, heels - sometimes reaching 8cm in height - became highly fashionable for men.

Practicality was far from the minds of the Manchu women of the Qing Dynasty in China. As Savi reveals, “Women from high-ranking families wore exaggeratedly elevated shoes. The increase in height gave the Manchu ethnic women startling proportions - they towered over the shorter Han women with their tiny bound feet. The pedestals, sometimes embroidered or decorated with gems, could reach a height of 15cm and would be visible below the skirt’s hem.”

A contemporary interpretation of King Louis XIV’s court could be a sea of male parliamentary figures in 8cm-high red-soled Christian Louboutins

In Renaissance Italy, meanwhile, platform-heeled shoes were not the symbols of wealth and status themselves, as the hems of skirts covered them. Savi explains: “The pedestal-like chopine of the late 15th to early 17th century transformed the upper-class European woman into a towering figure. Especially popular in Venice, the shoes were so exceptionally high - sometimes up to 54cm – that maids were used as crutches. Chopines were completely hidden under skirts. The higher the footwear, the more cloth was required for the dress, another indication of status.”

Installation view of Shoes: Pleasure and Pain

 

The pedestal-like chopine of the late 15th to early 17th century transformed the upper-class European woman into a towering figure. Especially popular in Venice, the shoes were so exceptionally high - sometimes up to 54cm – that maids were used as crutches.

By the 19th century, men had disowned the heel - excluding the brief resurgence in the 1970s and its sustained use in both equestrian sports and the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle (think David Bowie, New York Dolls, Marc Bolan and Brian Eno). That is until recently, in which heels for men are beginning to see a renaissance. For SS’16, Ashish sent two sequin-clad male models – musicians Jay Boogie and Larry B - down the runway in heels, and heels and platforms also played a key role in the SS’16 Acne collection. Saint Laurent have likewise brought heeled boots into their latest men’s collection. A pair of classic Saint Laurent booties has a stacked heel totalling 3.3 inches. Then there are Terry de Havilland’s three-inch high Cuban-heeled boots for men. Moving forwards, there appears to be a wave of menswear designers increasingly asserting a new kind of sartorial status. Is this a modern assertion of socio-political superiority? Next season may tell.

‘InvisibleNakedVersion' by Andreia Chaves, 2011. Photo by Andrew Bradley

In the future, will the wearing of heels still toy with the ideas of power and privilege?

Meanwhile, heels have remained ever popular with women, evolving to suit the needs of each era and often becoming more practical as the styles of the post-war era illustrate. The history of the heel is, in part, retrospectively humorous but vast. Through design and structure, the object’s symbolism has shifted over time; yet they can always be paired with the idea and attainment of power. History is still writing itself. However, and the question remains - in the future, will the wearing of heels still toy with the ideas of power and privilege?

Installation view of Shoes: Pleasure and Pain

The Victoria and Albert Museum’s Shoes: Pleasure and Pain exhibition runs until 31 January 2016 and explores some of the world’s most extreme footwear from the gold leaf embellished shoes of ancient Egypt to some of the more contemporary offerings available.

Words: Jamal George-Sharpe

Images source: Victoria and Albert Museum, London