A Feminist’s Guide to High Heels

Julia Reiss | January 26, 2016

Let this short history lesson empower you

Feminist-Guide-to-High-Heels-Man-Repeller---14 I have a love/hate relationship with heeled footwear. They’re impractical at best and medieval torture devices at worst. But they’re pretty. And like an attractive guy who rarely texts you back, it’s easy to become obsessed with them.

The latent symbolism of high heels is also at odds with itself. There’s something both empowering and almost violent about their design; they make your ass feel amazing while simultaneously making it really hard to run away.

Even if you wear them for purely aesthetic reasons, it’s hard to overlook the objectifying aspect of high heels. So does that mean my Rachel Comey platforms are anti-feminist?

The short answer: no.

Women have a long history of appropriating men’s fashion. To quote Will Smith in his seminal film, Men in Black, “[We] make this sh*t look good.” Whether it’s denim or suiting, women have refused to let any area of fashion remain a boys-only club. And by far, our greatest conquest was the high heel.

Oh yes. This modern symbol of feminine sexuality and sensuality was, in fact, designed to be worn by men.

There’s evidence that butchers in Ancient Egypt wore them to avoid soaking their feet in blood. (Mind you, those reddened soles bared little resemblance to a pair of Louboutins.) In 15th century Persia, soldiers on horseback wore heels to secure their feet in saddle stirrups. The trend made its way to Europe, where male aristocrats took note. For them, the extra height designated power and nobility, and the relative impracticality signified a labor-free lifestyle. In the 16th century, Italian courtesans bridged the gender gap and adopted heels as a symbol of irreverent and androgynous sexuality. Leave it to the most sexually and professionally liberated women of their time to make high heels accessible to the rest of us.

For a while, men and women revelled in the sexual and social symbolism of heeled footwear together. The fact that heels happened to accentuate a woman’s assets was more an accident of anatomy than misogynistic design.

So if history has a say, heels are less an evolution of sexual objectification and more trophies of women’s freedom to dress and act as like the boys. Consider your blistered ankles and swollen feet battle wounds in the fight for gender equality.

Facts sourced from Articles on History, BBC, and Racked.com. Photograph creative directed by Krista Anna Lewis and photographed by Emily Zirimis; shoes by Charlotte Olympia, knit pants by Maria Dora.

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  • Alessandra

    Thanks for the chuckle at the Louboutins/butcher blood comment. Viva la stiletto! Next time I get a snide look or comment about my heels, I’ll point the offender in the direction of this article.

  • Catherine Xiang

    Did not know this piece of history! So interesting to think about the history behind all the garments we wear today. Thank you for this piece! 🙂

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  • BK

    My general attitude towards high heels can be summarised in this Germaine Greer quote:

    “The high-heeled shoe is a marvellously contradictory item; it brings a woman to a man’s height but makes sure she cannot keep up with him.”

    That being said, I did really like the historical background of the high heel. Next time I got to my butcher’s I’ll take a peek over the counter to see what he’s tottering around in.

  • Ah, high heels. Proving there’s a little masochist in all of us.

  • Guest with a view

    Great post …. But “BARED little resemblance” ? Unless it’s a tricky play on words, I’d go for “bore” 🙂

  • Alison

    And there’s always Louis XIV! Wikipedia cites it, so it must be true.

  • rjt

    I feel like the answer is more like “it depends.” If you’re wearing heels because you think they (and you in them) are kickass, then definitely not antifeminist. If, however, the wearing of the heels is just to fall in line with what the men in your life find attractive, things get more complicated. Is wanting a man to find you attractive inherently wrong? Certainly not. But changing your footwear specifically and only to cater to a mans taste is questionable at best. So in conclusion… you do you for you!

  • “relative impracticality signified a labor-free lifestyle” – No kidding! How anyone wears a heel while getting shit done I will never understand, but I take my hat off to them.

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  • Carlotta

    For his red sole, Loboutin took inspiration from the paintings of Louis XVI – king of France – often portrayed wearing high heeled shoes with a red sole. X

  • I have never been able to wear heels. They are a marvel of engineering, and walking in them is not for the faint of heart.