A given society collectively constructs the fashion trends of its time. Sartorial relics lend us insight into the fashions of centuries past and often confuse and challenge those accepted today. While contemporary society frames heels as effeminate, men primarily occupied the picture in which this conjecture was conjured.
The 16th century saw Persian men elevate with the invention of the heel. However, this additional height alleviated a utilitarian need rather than a vanity one: balance. Persian horseback riders reeled with the invention of the saddle, but the newly adjoined and supportive block of the shoe allowed them to steady themselves by hooking it around the saddle.
Western men did not espouse the heel until Persians traveled to Europe at the turn of the 17th century, and western women only adopted the shoe style to mimic masculine dress. However, the heel retained its macho associations. The court of French King Louis XIV distinguished its political privilege through ostentatious dress, where heels peaked at an unprecedented height.
However, men’s flamboyant dress code began to wane at turn of the 18th century. The Enlightenment ushered in the notion that men are intrinsically rational and women lack skills to reason. Known as the Great Male Renunciation, Enlightenment values debunked men’s colorful wardrobe in favor of streamlined selections to better represent these mores. Women retained the heel in their wardrobe, only the picture was shot in a different light. For men, heels served as functional luxury, stylish and practical for horseback riding. For women, they were envisaged to shackle (until she reclaimed the elevation as her prerogative, of course). Society seldom saw men wear heels until the the 19th century cowboys of the Wild West reimagined them as a rugged symbol of freedom. In the early 20th century, Hollywood depicted the low slung heel with a pointy toe in Western films.
The heel continued to fall in and out of men’s fashion throughout the 20th century. Bikers of the post war years opted for the heel to accompany them on their motorcycles, while dandies like John Lennon brazenly wore them with pazazz during the Peacock Revolution of the ‘60s. As with King Louis XIV, the heel achieved its highest of heights in the ‘70s disco era before falling obsolete again from men’s fashion.
In recent years, men in heels have graced the runways and red carpets alike. Cuban-heeled boots decorated the feet of men on the Celine, Calvin Klein, and Balenciaga Spring 2019 runways. Celebrities have followed suit, swapping their sneakers for sleek boots. These men have relinquished their egos from the ideal western image of masculinity and are redefining manhood today.
The public lampooned Kanye West on social media for his audacity when he wore velvet heeled boots to the Fall 2015 Givenchy show. But the heels proved resilient in the midst of criticism. Justin Bieber has been spotted attired in heels and skinny jeans since 2016, while Shawn Mendes styled his single breasted grey suit with burgundy heeled boots at the 2018 Billboard Music Awards. Jared Leto continued the trend at the 2018 MusiCares Person of the Year event, completing his white monochromatic look with pointy heels straight from Helmut Lang’s Spring 2018 collection. Rockstar Harry Styles is the king of sporting the regal shoe. Heels punctuated his all-black gucci ensemble at the 2019 Met Gala. Stylish rapper Swae Lee posted an instagram on Hollywood Boulevard, smiling in an oxblood-colored outfit that included patent leather heeled boots on May 29, 2019. As men’s fashion continues to evolve, it remains essential to investigate the past in order to understand the present, and the heel is no exception. With more men adopting the heel in their wardrobes, we hope to reach a place where personal expression is autonomous from constructed gender restrictions.