History of High Heels

By Tobi Ewing


High heels, pumps, stilettos, or a badddd shoe! No matter the name you know the feeling and remarkable look of a beautiful heel. And this is coming from someone who – surprise – doesn’t like wearing heels. I’m definitely more of a sneakers girl, but the rare moment when I throw on a heel, I will admit, there is an extra dose of slayage in my walk.

Heels aren’t physics – although some I will argue against that – but, as anything else, it has its own very interesting history.

In college, as a Gender Studies major and fashion lover, I did some research on the intersection between fashion and gender. But the average person may be surprised that 1) despite the feminine and sexualized image, heels were designed with men in mind and 2) heels were designed with a functional purpose.

Yes they weren’t made just to make your calves look baller. Hard to believe, right?!

Before we get into the history let’s start with some modern heel lingo.

Class is in session!



General term for women’s shoes with tall, thin heels.





Exclusively refers to women’s shoes with a kitten or higher heel. Although in conversation pump usually refers to a shoe with a lower, thicker heel.




Kitten Heel


A type of  heel, typically between 1 and 2 inches in height. Think middle school dance, 1st Sunday of the month, interview heels.





A woman’s shoe with a thin, high tapering heel.





Wedge heels and boots have a sole in the form of a wedge



Now that we have a clear idea of some types of heels, let’s go back, way back, back into time.

I found this great video that briefly explains the history of heels starting from the 10th century to modern day.

Heels were first documented in the 10th century by the Persian cavalry. Persian men used to wear heels to stay in their stirrups as they rode horses during war. Because of the Persian expansion the trend of heels begin to spread all through Europe. Amongst European men heels became a huge status symbol as it meant you owned a horse. A big time commodity at the time, “equivalent to a sports car”. Vroom Vroom, or moreso #werk.

Heels amongst women didn’t become popular until the 16th century thanks to Catherine De Medici and her cheating husband. Her fiance, the King of France, had a mistress who was very tall. Catherine grew jealous and started wearing 2 inch heels to appear taller and more attractive to her partner. And as with the Persian warriors, this trend also began to spread quick.

At this time heels became very popular amongst men and women. In the early 1700s King Louis XIV wore heels up to 5 inches and declared 1) only nobility could wear heels with red soles, which later inspired the brand and image of Christian Louboutin and 2) no one in the land could wear heels higher than the King. Cue Beyonce’s “Bow Down”.

Come the 18th century, following the French revolution, heels temporary went out of style due to its connection with the aristocrat society. Due to the social context the appeal of the heel was lost.
The End…
Not even close, there’s so much more! You may be wondering “well how were heels reintroduced after such a negative connotation?” Answer: the sexualization of women!

In the mid 19th century, the camera was invented and on the market. Early pornographers liked to photograph women in these unique high platform shoes because of the sexy shape it added to the woman’s body. Heels grossly started to become marked “feminine” and “sexy” and for women. Men flocked to this image and in almost all pin up shoots models during World War II were in heels. Why didn’t heels become popular and expected of men how they were for women and men two centuries ago? It’s important to remember that this was a totally different culture. 1) we are now in America, totally different history context and 2) during this time the idea and implementation of the nuclear family and gender roles are introduced to American families. Heels became marked as feminine and for women only.

That was a brief history of the heel. What about those missing moments in between in the 1900s? Check out this awesome video by Glamour Magazine on “100 Years of Heels”. Some of the highlights are captured below!

1920s After decades of modesty women began to wear skin revealing shoes. Riske! The T strap heel became popular due to dances like the Charleston.


1930s Pumps, lace ups and buckle pumps in colors white, black brown and burgundy were most fashionable and became very popular.


1940s War time. Due to low supply of leather, heels became very expensive to purchase. Sensible for the time, the full coverage and low heel oxford shoe because the everyday shoe for women.


1960s Popularized by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the low kitten heel (as pictured above) became a “classy” alternative to the stiletto introduced just the decade before.


1980s Manolo Blahnik’s signature pointy and colorful stiletto earned an award from the CFDA, Council of Fashion Designers of America.


1990s Tell me what you want, want what you really really want. Influenced by the Spice Girls the typical 90s heel was blocky with a square toe.


Entering the 2000s the heel transitioned from chunky to a sexy and feminine skinny. During this time you saw a huge leap to a new level of sex appeal similar to the t strap heel of the 1920s. Think Britney Spears dance break scene.


Today cut outs, texture and edgy hardware are big trends in heels. The shorter thicker heel has made a big comeback as a pump, suede thigh boots and flirty strap up summer sandals. I personally am a big fan as I don’t feel as comfortable in 6” heels.

See some hot styles from Brother Vellies below!

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OpenStile wants to know, what’s your favorite era of heels? What’s your favorite and trend and style of heel?



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