Wednesday, 21 July 2010

A Brief History of High Heels




The issue of the high heel as a signifier of both conspicuous wealth and leisure, and of moral depravity, can be seen from its earliest conception. The tallest heel-like structure recorded first appeared in Venice in the sixteenth century. The Venetian chopines were shoes attached to solid stilts. They have been documented as being up to 52cm in height and were worn by fashionable women, concealed beneath long skirts. Venice was a major trading port with the East and chopines were first imported from Turkey where they were worn for hygiene reasons in public bath houses. In the nineteenth century they were used as signifiers of low morality in Orientalist paintings by Ingres and Gerome. The Italians apparently considered them a beneficial way of restricting the movement of women and therefore appeasing jealous husbands. Chopines were marginally popular throughout Europe with the aristocracy but as Valerie Steele claims they were also associated with the courtesan (1996: 98). In Spain the church recognised this association and banned chopines for being symbols of degeneracy.


The lowering of the sole at the front of the chopine and creation of a separate heel appears to have evolved as a practical way to increase movement. Brydon states that towards the end of the sixteenth century aristocratic men began to wear a high heel as a literal symbol of membership of an elevated class (1998: 9). Historians appear to agree that shoe fashion for both men and women remained similar until the mid seventeenth century. A shift occurred at this time amongst the wealthier classes as men and women separated into different spheres of society. Men began to wear boots which were practical items that enabled the pursuit of outdoor activities. Aristocratic men still had the choice of wearing heels but women’s choices were restricted. Women continued to wear shoes only suitable for indoors; this period marked a shift in gender roles; women's lives became significantly different to those of men. It can be argued that this is indicative of women’s interior and therefore inferior position in society at this time. 

Colin McDowell observes that a high proportion of women’s shoes from this age have survived due to the transportation of women from one interior to another by sedan chair (12).

In the eighteenth century it was the French aristocracy who wore the highest heels. Both men and women wore these heels and it has been recorded that Louis XIV frequently wore heels up to five inches high (McDowell :31). Again it can be observed that there was a construction of identity with reference to the high heel, the aristocracy were physically elevated above the peasant class as a symbol of their higher status. It has been suggested that the French Revolution of 1789 altered fashionable shoes from being highly decorative to simpler styles, and lowering the heel so that the remaining aristocracy and the peasant class were on the same level. 

The revolutionary period at the end of the eighteenth century saw the development of a bourgeois middle class. The bourgeoisie had new money and a more rational and reasoned way of thinking, which can be seen in the simpler clothing and more practical footwear of the period. However, this did not last and following the Napoleonic wars women’s shoes in Europe reverted to being flimsy and only suitable for indoor wear, a fashion that lasted until the mid nineteenth century.


In England in the nineteenth century a shift in tastes occurred following the accession of QueenVictoria in 1837 (Jane Dorner:74). Victoria’s reign could be said to be characterised by emphasising the moral respectability of women and the pioneering work of men. Women became conspicuous symbols of their husband’s wealth and remained within the domestic sphere of the home. Women now wore low heel pumps for dancing and ankle boots became acceptable for outdoor wear. In the second half of the nineteenth century the high heel reappeared and together with tightly laced corsets and wide crinolines women suffered discomfort and a restriction of movement. David Kunzle notes a rise in the amputation of toes among fashionable women who were suffering from lameness as a result of wearing tight boots (2004:135). He also states this vanity was responsible for producing an artificial high instep which was used to enhance a European aristocratic characteristic. (135). Kunzle claims that the lower classes also wore this instep and were responsible for further exaggerating the fashion.

The patent of the sewing machine by Thimonnier in 1830 brought about a transformation in shoe manufacture by increasing production. From 1820 a privately funded building boom began in Paris and the first department stores appeared, to be emulated elsewhere in Europe. As a consequence of these two developments fashionable shoes became more widely available. In 1858 in Paris, Charles Frederick Worth opened the first haute couture business and elevated the craft of dressmaking to the high art of dress design. Shoes at this time were produced by anonymous shoemakers in a crafts based industry consisting of both men and women. However, shoe designers were needed to accessorise the new and evolving fashions.

There are certain venerated shoe designers who constantly appear in differing accounts of the history of shoes. They have in common a commitment to high quality craftsmanship, original design, technical innovation and an enthusiasm for high heels. Italian Pierre Yantorny (1874-1936) working in France, attracted customers by placing a sign in his window that read “the most expensive shoes in the world” (Bossan, P.81). From his diary entries it can be read that he was concerned with the presentation of a shoe that gives ‘ the foot an illusion of being as small and thin as possible and even correcting natural defects’ (Bossan: 81). Andre Perugia (1893-1977) was of Italian descent and like Yantorny he also worked in France. He was a technical innovator who invented an articulated wooden heel and a shoe with a changeable heel system. Although his inventions were adapted to an industrial scale his image has been constructed not as an innovator of mass production, but as an elite male genius with reference to his sophisticated and wealthy clientele. Salvatore Ferragamo (1898-1960) was another Italian; he however worked in Italy and in America. Ferragamo achieved celebrity status with his creations for Hollywood films and wealthy clients such as Eva Peron (P.183). Roger Vivier (1907-1998) was a Parisian who studied sculpture before turning to shoe design. His famous clientele included Queen Elizabeth II who wore a pair of his high heeled shoes to her coronation.


The Second World War was a time of rationing for many goods including clothing and shoes. Sensible utility clothing and shoes used minimal materials in a time of general austerity. In 1947 as an antithesis, Parisian fashion designer Christian Dior created the New Look. This outfit emphasised the female figure with a tailored jacket narrowing at the waist and a full skirt requiring a great deal of material. The outfit was accessorised with a wide brimmed hat, fitted gloves and mid-high heeled shoes. It can be viewed as a construction of a particular type of femininity, reminiscent of the late Victorian era with the emphasis on a small waist and a full skirt, and the representation of decorative women as a sign of economic prosperity.


In 1952 a thin tapering heel appeared which had been developed by Italian engineers. This was an antidote to the wooden heel which was prone to breaking, this new heel had a metal core and was plastic coated (Wright:12). The ‘stiletto’ (also the name of a knife blade) was one of a number of terms at first used to describe this high heel; others being flute, matchstick, hatpin and the more aggressive sabre, rapier, spike and needle (Kunzle: 228). Lee Wright claims that the term originally referred specifically to the heel but that it became a generic term to refer to the shoe as a whole. Manufacturers anticipated that the stiletto shoe would be worn for evening wear but women began wearing them for work and other daily tasks. New technology made these shoes more widely available and affordable to women who were experiencing post-war prosperity with more money to spend on themselves. The stiletto came to symbolize sexual freedom in the 1950’s as stated by Brydon ‘For many women of the period it represented divine decadence and defiance. It symbolised the world outside the home, the freedom of rock and roll, and release from post-war austerity’ (7).


By the early 1960s the popularity of the stiletto had begun to fade and the lower Kitten became fashionable. By the 1970s the stiletto had competition from clumpy and cumbersome platforms. For both men and women, high heels, high platforms and square toes were the only footwear to be seen in.

Valerie Steele states that the very high heel did not become fashionable again until the 1990s (1998: 24). Whilst this may be the case in terms of designer led fashion; in the 1980s the white stiletto of the so called ‘Essex girls’ appeared. Hayes & Hudson explain this unflattering stereotype and the link made between the shoe and the morality of the wearer, ‘the Essex girl had a short skirt, white stilettos, large hoop earrings and an estuary accent. Her one escape from mediocrity was to break all records for sexual availability. Conversely, the 1980s was also a time of ‘power dressing’ and the high heel was often used to accessorise a masculine styled, tailored suit worn as a sign of a successful career. Television programmes such as Dallas and Dynasty showed images of powerful, wealthy women with large shoulder pads, big hair and high heels.

Suzanne Rowland 2005

I wrote this some time ago and my approach now would be different. For example my comment on Victorian corset wearing would consider the views of Valerie Steele rather than David Kunzle. I would also question his assertion that some Victorian women had toes removed due to wearing tightly laced boots.http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/11/fashion/11iht-rsteele18.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all%3Fsrc%3Dtp&smid=fb-share

                                                             What next for high heels?


                                                                Christian Louboutin

Bibliography available on request


1 comment:

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