Believe it or not, men were the first to wear heeled shoes and were horsemen in the 10th-century Persian cavalry. They wore a boot called ‘the galesh’ with heels that were intended to provide a better grip when riding, so they could stand up and shoot arrows more effectively from horseback.

Manly and ‘high’ social status

Women still hadn’t cottoned onto heels at this point, but high heels for men spread in popularity from their Persian equestrian origins to wider fashion use, and by early 17th-century Europe, high heels were a sign of masculinity and high social status. Even bucket-topped Cavalier boots turned down below the knee and worn with lace-adorned socks had high heels. Eventually, the trend began to spread to women's fashion, and by the 18th century, high-heeled shoes were split between both genders. Heels for men were chunky squares attached to riding boots or tall formal dress boots, while women's high heels were narrow, pointy, and often attached to slipper-like dress shoes. In due course, high heels with a slim profile represented femininity; however, a thick high heel on a boot or clog was still socially acceptable for men.

Types and Styles

Shoe heels were typically made from wood, but after the 1950’s have been made from a variety of materials – including leather, suede, cork, rubber, and plastic. There are many styles of high heels in varying colours, materials, and shapes, sometimes with towering heights. High heels have been used in various ways to communicate nationality, professional affiliation, gender, and social status. High heels became an important statement piece of fashion throughout history in the West.

The stiletto - the tallest skinniest heel - was named for its similarity to a long thin knife called a stiletto first developed in Italy which dates from the late 15th century, and is thought to be a development of the rondel dagger or misericordia, a needle-pointed weapon with a narrow blade designed primarily for thrusting. Fashions in heels come and go - wedges, kittens, pumps, cones, slingbacks, platforms, spools, French, chunky, comma heels, espadrilles – even fantasy heels, those being in bizarre shapes and made from innovative materials, such as transparent acrylic. Some were even hollow with secret compartments large enough for ladies to store money, credit cards, keys, etc - with some adapted for use in illegal drug smuggling incidents.

Tall and Elegant Look

High-heeled shoes have an upward-angled sole, making the heel rise higher than the ball of the foot, and cause the legs to appear longer, making the wearer appear taller and accentuating the calf muscle – a fact no doubt noted by both males and females. The heels changed a woman’s silhouette, which some men found alluring, so they became associated with women’s sexuality. When men abandoned the heel for more practical flat boots, women continued to wear them.

Credits: envato elements;

The Downside to the Heel-rise

Ah, the downsides – falling, musculoskeletal pain, development of foot deformities, varicose veins – the list goes on. The altered spinal alignment caused by high heels, shifting the body's centre of gravity forward, can result in increased stress on the back and spine, joints, and soft tissues. And despite doctors pointing out that heels are not just uncomfortable, but can permanently damage the foot, many women feel pressure to wear them, much like women did in the 18th and 19th centuries. As recently as 2017, a well-known giant business mandated that women wear heels to work, prompting one employee to petition the British government to make it illegal to include heels in a dress code. It’s strange that women’s high heels have persisted into the 21st century, given how uncomfortable they are.

The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York has a collection of 5,000 pairs of shoes in their permanent collection, aka ‘the closet’, and heels, in particular, stand out as shoes that are poorly designed for movement, but very important to social acceptance.

Christian Louboutin, renowned for his red soled high-end high-heels, has remarked that ‘……the higher the better. It's more about an attitude’. I think he probably means it’s more about altitude!

Christian Louboutin, renowned for his red-soled high-end high-heels, has remarked that ‘……the higher the better. It's more about an attitude’. I think he probably means it’s more about altitude!


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan