For generations, heels have embodied femininity and glamour but a pair of high heels was once an essential accessory for men.
Although high heeled shoes are depicted in ancient Egyptian murals, the earliest known heel wearers were 9th century Persian horseback riders who wore 1.5 inch heels for functionality as they kept the feet from sliding out of stirrups when riding or standing up to shoot arrows during battle.
In Europe, men started wearing heels following a 1599 visit by Persian diplomats to the continent to rally support for Persia’s war against the Ottoman Empire. A craze for Persian culture developed and wealthy European aristocrats embraced heels enthusiastically to highlight their social status.
One of the first European women to wear heels was Catherine de Medici, an Italian noblewoman from Florence. On her wedding day to the French Duke of Orleans in Marseille on October 28, 1533, the rather shy 14-year old bride astutely compensated for her short stature with an extravagant dress and a pair of 4" heels she had commissioned from a master craftsman in her native Florence, thus starting a trend that would last to this day.
Catherine de Medici would eventually become Queen of France from 1547 until 1559. Following her husband’s death, she assumed extensive, if at times varying, influence ruthlessly ruling France as its regent at times. Often described as “the most powerful woman in 16th century Europe”, she always dressed impeccably. A true style icon of her time, she is credited with importing many of Italy’s luxuries and customs to France, including perfume, underwear, ballet, table manners and, of course, Italian style (although the French may disagree).
Heels would drift in and out of fashion in 18th and 19th century Europe, with men eventually walking away from the trend to differentiate themselves from women. For a while, women too got away from heels as they were not practical to walk in on muddy or cobblestone roads. The advent of photography in the mid-19th century brought back the heel, as photographers would often dress their risque’ models in heels. The paving of roads also contributed to the renaissance of heels. Fast forward to the 1950s, French designer Roger Vivier re-popularized the high heel with the invention of the stiletto. The rest, as they say, is history.