Health Care Professionals

Why Do Women Wear High Heels?

Why Do Women Wear High Heels?

Remember the 1997 movie, “Devil’s Advocate”?  Al Pacino played the devil, and one of his great lines to Keanu Reeves was “Vanity…is definitely my favorite sin.”  And so it is for women and high heels.

For centuries, high heeled shoes have gone in and out of fashion. They make walking precarious; they are usually uncomfortable to wear and generally bad for the feet (see bursitis). I decided to investigate the history of high heels, and discovered a study documenting why women wear them, which I’ll share at the end.

Status and Power

In Europe, from the Middle Ages through the early 20th century, both men and women wore platform-type overshoes called pattens. Pattens were purely utilitarian and kept people’s shoes and hemlines out of the ever-present street filth. These simple overshoes were made of wood or wood-and-metal soles with a cloth or leather band that crossed over the top of the foot.

In the 15th to 17th centuries, women wore chopines (pronounced “sha-PEENS”), another platform-type shoe. Initially, chopines were also a protective overshoe, but they eventually became a symbol of social status. The higher the chopine, the higher the woman’s status in society. There are chopines still in existence that are over 20 inches in height.

For centuries, spiky high heels were worn by Persian warriors on horseback. The heel enabled a  soldier to stand up in the stirrups and shoot a bow and arrow more efficiently. In 1599, the first Persian diplomat was sent to Europe, and the Europeans fell in love with all things Persian. Aristrocratic men began to wear heels to appear more masculine. That’s right—more masculine. As the new shoe style filtered down to the lower classes, aristocrats increased their heel height to again show privilege and status.

Louis XIV of France loved his heels so much he created a signature shoe with red soles and heels, and he granted the men at court permission to wear the same shoe style. If an aristocrat fell out of favor, he could no longer wear the red shoes, so it was easy to discern who was cool and who wasn’t. (In theory, one needed the king’s permission, but in reality, illegal imitations were available.)   Women began to wear high heels in the 1630s as a protest against men’s power in society. Men’s fashion had evolved to a more comfortable chunky platform shoe while women wore a spikier-heeled shoe. In 1791, Napoleon outlawed all high heels because they represented the detested aristocracy.

Sex and Femininity

High heels became fashionable again in the mid-19th century, this time purely as a sex symbol. Photographers (actually, I think they were early pornographers) took pictures of nude women in high heels to be used on “dirty” postcards. Soon, the feminine adornment became popular among the general public, and heels were back in fashion. High heels were all the rage with flappers in the 1920s and housewives in the 1950s. High heels  continue to enjoy a prominent place among the most favored, fashion-forward footwear.

In 2012, psychologists at the UK’s University of Portsmouth did a study entitled “High heels as supernormal stimuli:  How wearing high heels affects judgments of female attractiveness.”  Yep, and they got government funding. To quote the researchers:  “Females were recorded walking in flat shoes and high heels. Participants viewed point-light videos of the women wearing the two types of shoe. Participants judge the females in the heels condition as significantly more attractive than the females in the flat shoe condition.” In other words, heels exaggerate the “secondary sex traits” of a woman by shortening her gait, exaggerating the curve of her pelvis and pushing out her breasts and buttocks.

Did we really need a scientific study to figure this out?

A more recent UK study documented the toll high heels take on a woman’s feet. Most women are in pain in just over an hour, and one of the study authors is quoted as saying, "There's absolutely no doubt women who wear high heels are putting themselves at risk of permanent injury in the name of fashion.”

References and Resources

- Patty Boyd, IPFH


Reviewed by Rachel Rader, DPM, IPFH Scientific Advisory Board
Last updated April 27, 2016

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