As you might have seen already, this month, W.U Hstry is dedicated to the quick study of random objects and artefacts the can find and use in our everyday life. My chosen artifact has been high heels. You may wonder why…Well, I was looking around the shops in town and I realised how many high heel shoes were everywhere, and that made thought why did high heels exist, if they were just a fashion product or if the had a deeper reasoning to exist.
It seems that the boom of proper high heel shoes, or what we would consider as high heels in a modern anachronistic way, started in the 16th Century thanks to Catherine de Medici. It appears that the new way of crafting shoes from the Renaissance onwards allowed shoes to be formed by two main elements: the soft cover and the solid bottom, which made high heels possible. In what concerns Catherine, the sources say that she was a quite petite woman, not tall at all, and that might have been the reason why she started using this type of shoes often. Since then, the history of high heels is one of ups-and-downs. Their popularity carried on through the reign of Louis the XIV, who apparently liked to have his heels decorated with epic battle scenes. Nonetheless, when Napoleon took control, he forbade the use of this kind of footwear. But the fancy Victorians, in their effort of reviving everything “cool” the past had created at some point, so made high heels trendy again. Their use seems to be quite prominent within women, especially members of the European aristocracy.
Unfortunately for these items, the 20th Century will not treat them much better. As soon as the Depression took over the world, followed by the Second World War, luxury resources became scarce. In addition, women of this era seem to have a preference for lower, more comfortable heels, and a more modest look in genera. It was not until the 50s when high heels would see the sun again, although this happened with great splendour: Christian Dior and Roger Vivier created then the so-called Stilettos.But it the following decade would replace them by lower, squared heels and platform shoes, which suited more the minds of the feminist movements and the hippies. Once again though, and since the 80s, high heels have become a part of the female apparel, to the point that it seems almost impossible to find a pair of shoes that is fairly flat and are not ballerinas!…(or at least not in Winchester).
On a final note, though, I would like to point out that high heels were not created as a symbol of fashion, or at least I have the hint their origins were more practical. We can find references to them in ancient Egypt murals, in what seems rituals or special ceremonies performed by the high classes. Also, butchers of that period seem have used a very similar type of footgear in order to walk above the blood and guts. One could presume that was very much the case for the medieval pattens; to keep people’s feet away from the filth and mud.
Whatever way it was, either due to practicalities or physical appearance, the thing is that they became a symbol of their own, usually associated with sexuality, perhaps femininity, or even going a step further, a symbol of wild innovation.I would like to think that shoes can tell their own stories, and they most definitely tell us things about the people who walk on them.So by stepping on past, old-fashioned, ancient shoes, we are still exploring history, just perhaps in a more stylish way.