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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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