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The heel was not a European invention, instead it originated in Western Asia centuries ago in relation to horseback riding and the invention of the stirrup. This pair of Persian riding shoes features shagreen-covered heels and is the type of footwear that may have inspired European men to wear heels. Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum Photo credit: Image © 2015 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada (photo: Ron Wood)

Persian, 17th century: The heel was not a European invention, instead it originated in Western Asia centuries ago in relation to horseback riding and the invention of the stirrup. This pair of Persian riding shoes features shagreen-covered heels and is the type of footwear that may have inspired European men to wear heels.
Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum Photo credit: Image © 2015 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada (photo: Ron Wood)

In 1599 Shah Abbas the Great of Persia sent his first-ever diplomatic mission to Western Europe. Fresh from his victories over the Uzbeks and clearly feeling his oats, he was keen to find out if there was any interest in forging an east-west alliance against his age-old enemy the Ottoman Turks. The ambassadorial party set off in July. Over the next three years travelled to Moscow, Prague, Bavaria, Rome and the Vatican before finishing up at the court of King Phillip III of Spain.

As things panned out, they found little interest among Europeans for declaring war on the Turks, but much fascination with Persia and themselves. Their exotic dress and romantic Eastern-ness fired imaginations. This was at a time when the Persian Empire was reaching the zenith of its power; when Shah Abbas the Great commanded the world’s largest mounted military force – 15,000 hard-riding cavalrymen famed for their ability to stand in the stirrups and shoot accurately with their bows, thanks to the high-heels they wore on their distinctive Persian shoes.

It was around this time that heels first began to interest Europeans. Aristocrats everywhere scrambled to affect the raffish look and style of a Persian cavalry officer, whether were astride a horse or not. The very fact that high heels were impractical for walking only heightened their appeal. Since gentlemen never walked anywhere anyway, wearing heels signalled wealth and privilege – and bestowed upon the wearer an enviable, buccaneering sort of masculinity. Every manly man in Europe wanted a pair of heels.

Dutch, 16th century This tall boot dates to the 16th century and reflects the style of footwear used by men just prior to the adoption of the heel in Western dress. The sole of the boot features layers of leather creating a low platform that would have augmented height but there is no evidence of a distinct heel. One of the intriguing questions about early heels in European dress is, how did shoemakers go about constructing heels for their eager customers when the heel suddenly came into fashion? Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum Photo credit: Image © 2015 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada (photo: Ron Wood)

Dutch, 16th century
This tall boot dates to the 16th century and reflects the style of footwear used by men just prior to the adoption of the heel in Western dress. The sole of the boot features layers of leather creating a low platform that would have augmented height but there is no evidence of a distinct heel. One of the intriguing questions about early heels in European dress is, how did shoemakers go about constructing heels for their eager customers when the heel suddenly came into fashion? Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum
Photo credit: Image © 2015 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada (photo: Ron Wood)

And so was launched a fashion icon that would one day beget the likes of Manolo Blahnik and Christian Louboutin, and virtually come to  define femininity. The story of how and why this remarkable reversal came about is told in an equally remarkable exhibition that is presently running (until June) at the Bata Shoe Museum, in Toronto.

Titled Standing Tall: The Curious History of Men in Heels it explores 400 years of heel wearing by men, from privileged aristocrats in the 17th century to hyper-sexualised rock stars today. Along the way, says curator Elizabeth Semmelhack, it poses a lot of thought-provoking questions about gender and society, explore the meanings and uses of heeled footwear for men through the ages, and challenge preconceived notions about who wears heels and why.

“When heels were introduced into fashion at the turn of the 17th century, men eagerly adopted them,” says Semmelhack. “Men continued wearing heels as expressions of power and prestige for the next 130 years. Even after heels fell from men’s fashion in the 1730s there have been pockets of time when they were re-integrated into the male wardrobe, not as a way of challenging masculinity but rather as a means of proclaiming it.”

Among the exhibits on display are rare examples of 17th and 18th century men’s heeled footwear, 19th century military boots, cowboy boots from the ‘30s, biker boots from the ‘40s, John Lennon’s Beatle boots from the ‘60s and platform shoes worn by Elton John in the ‘70s, ‘kinky boots’ from the musical of the same name, as well as recent high-heeled offerings from haute couture fashion houses.

English, early 1960s. Worn by John Lennon. When the Beatles became popular in the early 1960s, they stood at the forefront of the Peacock Revolution, a movement in men’s fashion to reclaim the privilege of extravagant dress. Their signature look included “mop-top” hair, tight fitting suits, and the now famous “Beatle boot.” These boots were typical Chelsea boots popular in men’s fashion since the 19th century with the exception that they featured a significantly higher heels borrowed from male flamenco dancers. This boot was worn by John Lennon. Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum Photo credit: Image © 2015 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto,

English, early 1960s. Worn by John Lennon.
When the Beatles became popular in the early 1960s, they stood at the forefront of the Peacock Revolution, a movement in men’s fashion to reclaim the privilege of extravagant dress. Their signature look included “mop-top” hair, tight fitting suits, and the now famous “Beatle boot.” These boots were typical Chelsea boots popular in men’s fashion since the 19th century with the exception that they featured a significantly higher heels borrowed from male flamenco dancers. This boot was worn by John Lennon.
Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum
Photo credit: Image © 2015 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto,

While the focus is on the past, it begs a question for today, says Semmelhack: “With power heels – at least for women – being so much a part of the Zeitgeist today and with the advantages of height being so closely linked with everything from higher pay to social success, perhaps the real question we ought to be asking is: why don’t men wear heels?”

To find the answer to that one you need to go back to the later part of the 17th century, and a fad by some avant garde women of the day for wearing masculine clothing – including, perhaps even especially, high heels. As more and more women adopted the look, men began to back away. By 1730 heels were seen as feminine and thus it has been ever since. “As a fashion historian, it intrigues me how women can borrow from the men’s wardrobe, but men never do the reverse,” says Semmelhack. “It raises all kinds of interesting questions about perceptions of gender, power and society.”

French or English, mid-17th century This small shoe dates to the middle of the 17th century and was most likely made for a well-to- do boy. The fact that the wearer was male is suggested by the shape and type of heel. Stacked leather ‘polony’ heels were popular on men’s footwear at this time. That the child was well off is indicated by the height of the heel, its marked impracticality helped to declare the wearer’s privilege. The heel is also painted red in keeping with the fashion of the day. Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum Photo credit: Image © 2015 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada (photo: Ron Wood)

French or English, mid-17th century
This small shoe dates to the middle of the 17th century and was most likely made for a well-to- do boy. The fact that the wearer was male is suggested by the shape and type of heel. Stacked leather ‘polony’ heels were popular on men’s footwear at this time. That the child was well off is indicated by the height of the heel, its marked impracticality helped to declare the wearer’s privilege. The heel is also painted red in keeping with the fashion of the day.
Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum
Photo credit: Image © 2015 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada (photo: Ron Wood)

Men gave away more than just their heels during the course of the 18th century. This was the Age of Enlightenment and in their new enlightened mode, it became fashionable for thinking men to see themselves as sober, conservative, rational beings, sons of the soil, not given to frivolity and peacock displays at court. “This is when the seeds were being sown for the French revolution and the birth of democracy,” says Semmelhack. “As fashions took on a more egalitarian look, the gender gap in clothing grew wider.”

Bright colours and foppish adornment – to say nothing of heels – were out as far as men were concerned. That sort of frippery was better left to the ‘weaker’ sex, whose perceived silliness and irrationality, after all, was considered part of their charm.

It was the start of what fashion historians have come to call the Great Male Renunciation, in which men eschewed bright colours, vanity and gaudiness in favour of sombre hues, simple lines and uniformity. The effects of it are with us today, 250 years later, still shaping men’s fashions, in the form of the three-piece business suit, the muted colour choices available to men and, of course, sensible shoes.

American, Tony Lama, late 20th century From dime novels and Wild West shows to Hollywood Westerns, the high-heeled cowboy symbolized unfettered freedoms and self- reliance in the 20th century. Although 19th century cowboys first splurged on ostentatious cowboy boots after reaching the railheads at the end of a long cattle drive, it took Hollywood and Dude Ranches for the cowboy boot with its pointy toe and low slung heel to finally take shape. This pair of Tony Lama boots reflects the fashion for finery from the use of lizard skin at the toe to the high stacked leather heel. Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum. Photo credit: Image © 2015 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada (photo: Ron Wood)

American, Tony Lama, late 20th century
From dime novels and Wild West shows to Hollywood Westerns, the high-heeled cowboy symbolized unfettered freedoms and self- reliance in the 20th century. Although 19th century cowboys first splurged on ostentatious cowboy boots after reaching the railheads at the end of a long cattle drive, it took Hollywood and Dude Ranches for the cowboy boot with its pointy toe and low slung heel to finally take shape. This pair of Tony Lama boots reflects the fashion for finery from the use of lizard skin at the toe to the high stacked leather heel.
Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum.
Photo credit: Image © 2015 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada (photo: Ron Wood)

Not that heels haven’t had a look-in from time to time in the male wardrobe. Cowboy culture and the myth of America’s Old West has kept heel wearing for men alive and acceptable – within certain bounds – in the form of the cowboy boot, while Darwinism and much loose chatter about eugenics during the 1930s made the elevator shoe popular, with its ‘secret’ heel giving vertically challenged men that vital upward boost to success.

For a brief flamboyant period in the ‘60s and ‘70s, heels and platform shoes were back in vogue for men. “You often hear it said that the Sixties and Seventies was a time of unisex fashions where liberated men felt free to experiment with gender lines,” says Semmelhack. “I disagree. To me this was a time of reclamation – of men taking back what once was theirs – than any liberation of thought or new freedom to tinker with gender. Yes, they wore bright clothes and heels and platform shoes but if you look closely you can see that all of the style references go straight back to the court of Louis XIV – a time when this was all very masculine. The same with the long hair. It wasn’t spoken of in feminine terms, but was always referred to as ‘Jesus hair’. The references were invariably masculine – men were not borrowing from the female wardrobe; nobody was wearing stilettos, for instance.

“The same goes for those Blaxploitation pimps you’d see in the movies, flamboyantly dressed from the soles of their platform shoes to the tops of their raffish hats. There was nothing feminine about them, far from it. It was an exaggerated expression of masculinity.”

Canadian, designed and made by Master John, 1973 The Toronto shoemaker Master John made these men’s platform boots complete with five and a half inch heels, appliquéd stars, and veritable landscape in leather. In the 1970s, some men followed the lead of rock stars in adopting lavish personal adornment and elevating shoes cultivating a persona at once dandyish and hyper- masculine. Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum. Photo credit: Image © 2015 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada

Canadian, designed and made by Master John, 1973
The Toronto shoemaker Master John made these men’s platform boots complete with five and a half inch heels, appliquéd stars, and veritable landscape in leather. In the 1970s, some men followed the lead of rock stars in adopting lavish personal adornment and elevating shoes cultivating a persona at once dandyish and hyper- masculine.
Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum.
Photo credit: Image © 2015 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada

So could heels for men ever make a comeback?

“Absolutely,” says Semmelhack. “In fact, I think we are coming into a time where we might start seeing some of those old boundaries challenged. There are men out there already wearing narrower and slimmer heels. Yannis Marshall, for example, nearly won the Britain’s Got Talent show with a dance act in which he and two other male dancers wore stilettos. There was nothing comical about their act – they weren’t trying to be funny, deliberately clumsy or do a female burlesque, they were dancing beautifully in stilettos.”

Fundraising events such as Walk A Mile In Her Shoes, in which men march in red stiletto pumps as a means of raising awareness of violence against women, have gained a large following and now take place in cities and towns all over America and around the world. As the spectacle of a man in heels – even in the context of a fundraiser – becomes more commonplace, says Semmelhack, a softening of entrenched attitudes and perceptions may well follow.

Although men have worn heels over the last 400 years, none of these fashionable heels were inspired by women’s fashion. For men attempting to dress femininely, however, the stiletto is ideal. This pair of size 16 heels is big enough to allow a man to step into a woman’s shoes. Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum, gift of Walk on the Wild Side, Toronto Photo credit: Image © 2015 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada (photo: Ron Wood)

Although men have worn heels over the last 400 years, none of these fashionable heels were inspired by women’s fashion. For men attempting to dress femininely, however, the stiletto is ideal. This pair of size 16 heels is big enough to allow a man to step into a woman’s shoes.
Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum, gift of Walk on
the Wild Side, Toronto
Photo credit: Image © 2015 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada (photo: Ron Wood)

Perhaps the most intriguing pointer to the future, and masculine willingness to break out of the mould, she says, can be seen in the humble sneaker where men are increasingly feeling free to experiment with bold colours and designs. “With sneaker fashion they are trying on styles and colours they’d reject in any other outfit or context,” says Semmelhack, who also curated the exhibition Out of The Box: The Rise of the Sneaker Culture which has been touring the US with the American Federation of Arts. “Sneaker culture is enfranchising men into the fashion world, allowing them to break free of the uniformity with which they have been expected to dress for the past two hundred years, and express their individuality.”

Who knows where it could lead? Perhaps it is the thin end of the wedge…heel?

Standing Tall: The Curious History of Men in Heels opened in May last year and will run until June 2016. For more information on the exhibit, check out the Bata Shoe Museum’s website here