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September 9th, 2009

A Short History of Heels: Why Flats are the Footwear of the Proletariat

Louis XIV- Hyacinthe Rigaud 1701 - and shoes

Louis XIV and his royal red heels

It’s true.  Flats are the footwear of the bourgeois and the proletariat.  And I’m not just saying that because they’re far more comfortable to wear at work than heels.  Indeed, I used to think of my favorite flats as a personal fashion bargain.  I would think to myself, “I’m trading a little bit of fashion fierceness for a whole lotta comfort.”  Never one to kill herself for fashion, I saw my flats as a sign of my own laid-back approach to life. My, how my approach to flats has changed since I learned about the history of heels.

Sometime during the early 1500s, heels were added to boots to help horse riders keep their foot in the stirrup.  Even before then, people often wore tall outer shoes to keep their delicate shoes out of street debris.  We have a Medici to thank for the idea of fashionable high heels.  Catherine Medici was the first aristocrat to turn her shoes into a statement of power.  She added two-inch heels to her shoes to give her a confidence boost for her presentation to the French court.  Catherine’s innovation soon became popular for both sexes.  Although figures like Mary Tudor strapped on heels to appear more impressive, France’s Louis XIV solidified the idea of heels representing social class. The Sun King declared that only nobility would be allowed to wear red heels, upon pain of death.  Furthermore, no one could wear heels higher than his own.  Louis’ heels were as high as five inches tall, and often included miniature depictions of battle scenes.


Napoleon Bonaparte: Banner of Heels

France’s subsequent footwear fetish eroticized feet and heels.  European women began taping their feet, forming their feet in the same way that they used corsets to change the shape of their bodies.  Over in the New World, Puritans responded with disdain–the Massachusetts Colony even passed a law banning women from wearing high heels to attract a man.  Those who defied this law were tried for witchcraft.

And here’s where flat shoes became a revolutionary symbol.  Heels had long been associated with social status and height– indeed, as Cameron Kippen writes for the British Journal of Podiatry, “The term ‘well-heeled’ is thought to relate to the habit of the rich towering over the poor,” thanks to high heels.  When Napoleon stormed through France during the Revolution, he banned heels.  Still, Marie Antoinette marched to her death at the guillotine in two-inch heels–the footwear equivalent of screaming, “Let them eat cake!”

So, the next time that you opt for a flat shoe, don’t get down on yourself for not toughing out a tottering day on heels, like I do.  Instead, slip into your cozy flats and congratulate yourself on wearing anti-establishment kicks.

To learn more about the history of heels, visit


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