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Dangerous Elegance A History of High-Heeled Shoes

 

The high-heeled shoe, or a shoe whose heel is higher than the toe, is a matter of contentious and heated discussion. Shoes in general have typically served as markers of gender, class, race, and ethnicity--and both the foot and the shoe have been imbued with powerful phallic and fertility symbols as evidenced in the contemporary practice of tying shoes to a newlywed couple’s car. No other shoe, however, has gestured toward leisure, sexuality, and sophistication as much as the high-heeled shoe. Fraught with contradiction, heels paradoxically inhibit movement in order to increase it, at least in appearance. Standing in heels, a woman presents herself already half-walking while at the same time reducing the length of her step, fostering the illusion of speed while suggesting the promise of an immanent fall. The higher and more unstable the heel, the more clearly these contradictions are expressed. Doctors and scholars alike have argued about the physical and cultural effect, both positive and negative, that heels have had not only on women, but on society as a whole.

 

Precursors to the High-Heeled Shoe

 

Most of the lower class in ancient Egypt walked barefoot, but figures on murals dating from 3500 B.C. depict an early version of shoes worn mostly by the higher classes. These were leather pieces held together with lacing that was often arranged to look like the symbol of “Ankh,” which represents life. But there are also some depictions of both upper-class males and females wearing heels, probably for ceremonial purposes. Egyptian butchers also wore heels, to help them walk above the blood of dead beasts. In ancient Greece and Rome, platform sandals called kothorni, later known as buskins in the Renaissance, were shoes with high wood or cork soles that were popular particularly among actors who would wear shoes of different heights to indicated varying social status or importance of characters. In ancient Rome, sex trade was not illegal and female prostitutes were readily identified by their high heels.

 

  Chopines, or platform shoes, were created in Turkey in the 1400s, and were popular throughout Europe until the mid-1600s During the Middle Ages, both men and women would wear pattens, or wooden soles, that were clearly a precursor the high heel. Pattens would attach to fragile and expensive shoes to keep them out of the mud and other street “debris” when walking outdoors. In the 1400s, chopines, or platform shoes, were created in Turkey and were popular throughout Europe until the mid-1600s. Chopines could be seven to eight or even 30 inches high, requiring women to use canes or servants to help them walk. Like pattens, chopines were overshoes, but unlike the pattens, chopines were worn almost exclusively by women. They were usually designed with cork or wood stacked as the heel.  

 

The Venetians made the chopine into a status symbol revealing wealth and social standing for women, and tourists to Venice often remarked humorously on the outrageously high chopines. One visitor noted that they were “invented by husbands who hoped the cumbersome movement [that] entailed would make illicit liaisons difficult” . Already we can see issues of domination and submission being associated with shoes much like the lotus shoes of China. Indeed, Chinese concubines and Turkish odalisques wore high shoes, prompting scholars to speculate if heels were used not only for aesthetic reasons but also to prevent women from escaping the harem.



 

Shoes were beginning to be made in two pieces during the 1500s, with a flexible upper attached to a heavier, stiffer sole. This new two-part shoe led to the heel as an actual part of the shoe rather than just an attachable overshoe. Heels grew in popularity during the 1500s to keep riders, both male and female, from slipping from the stirrups. The “rider’s heel” was initially 1 to 1-½ inches high and resembled the modern riding boot and cowboy boot. The simple riding heel soon gave way to more stylized heels that were higher and thinner in the mid 1500s after Catherine de Medici made them more fashionable than functional.. The introduction of the high heel and the concomitant difficulty of making mirror image lasts (a foot mold used to make shoes) led shoemakers to create “straight shoes” or shoes that could fit either the left or right foot. Right and left shoes would eventually return in the early1800s when high heels were abandoned.

 

Formal Invention of High Heels as Fashion

 

The formal invention of high heels as fashion is typically attributed to the rather short-statured Catherine de Medici (1519-1589). At the age of 14, Catherine de Medici was engaged to the powerful Duke of Orleans, later the King of France. She was small (not quite five feet) relative to the Duke and hardly considered a beauty. She felt insecure in the arranged marriage knowing she would be the Queen of the French Court and in competition with the Duke’s favorite (and significantly taller) mistress, Diane de Poitiers. Looking for a way to dazzle the French nation and compensate for her perceived lack of aesthetic appeal, she donned heels two inches high that gave her a more towering physique and an alluring sway when she walked. Her heels were a wild success and soon high heels were associated with privilege. Mary Tudor, or “Bloody Mary,” another monarch seeking to appear larger than life, wore heels as high possible. By 1580, fashionable heels were popular for both sexes, and a person who had authority or wealth was often referred to as “well-heeled.”

 

In the early 1700s, France's King Louis XIV decreed that only nobility could wear heels that were colored red and that no one's heels could be higher than his own

 

In the early 1700s, France's King Louis XIV (The Sun King) would often wear intricate heels decorated with miniature battle scenes. Called “Louis heels,” they were often as tall as five inches. The king decreed that only nobility could wear heels that were colored red (les talons rogue) and that no one's heels could be higher than his own.. During the course of the century, a cultural kind of foot fetishism manifested itself in various media. For example, under the influence of rococo, a court-based decorative and ornamental style, heels became higher and more slender, a move that complemented the highly feminine court style. In addition, novelist Restif de Bretonne threw erotic emphasis on the finely arched foot and the delicately curved high heel. Consequently, many women taped their feet to reduce their apparent size. Like the corset, high heels sculpted the body to make it appear more aristocratic, pure, refined, and desirable. The desirable and sexual nature of the high heel was also noted by the Puritans in the New World. The Massachusetts Colony even passed a law banning women from wearing high heels to ensnare a man or they would be tried as a witch. It wouldn’t be until the mid 1800s when American would catch up to Europe shoe fashion.

 

French Revolution and the Revolt against High Heels

 

In 1791, the “Louis” high heels disappeared with the revolution, and Napoleon banished high heels in an attempt to show equality. Despite the Napoleonic Code against high heels, in 1793 Marie Antoinette went to the scaffold to be executed wearing two-inch heels. The heel lowered greatly in the 1790s until it was reduced to the merest wedge or replaced by a spring heel, which was a single layer of leather inserted just above the sole at the back of the shoe. These flimsy shoes were often worn with ribbons to cross and tie around the ankle, reminiscent of the classical Roman sandal. The demise of the heel made it easier for shoes to be made for left and right feet, making them more comfortable. From this period to the 1930s, there were four major types of heels used on Western woman’s shoes: the knock-on, stacked, spring, and the re-emergence of the Louis.

 


Date: 2015-02-28; view: 1135


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