By Zuleyka Zevallos
High heel shoes were once a status symbol for powerful men, from horse riding soldiers in 16th Century Persia, to European aristocrats in the 17th Century. Since the Enlightenment period, heels became associated with “irrational” fashion and pornography, and so “impractical” shoes became a symbol of femininity. What changed? Today’s post examines how history and fashion trends related to high heels help us to see how gender is a performance that entrenches inequality.
16th to 17th Century: Heels as a Sign of Masculine Utility, Wealth and Power
As far back as the 16th and 17th centuries, in different parts of the world, wealthy and powerful men wore high heels as a symbol of their social position. Persian soldiers wore high heels as they were seen as practical gear for horse riding. Later on in Europe, aristocrats wore high heels for the opposite reason: high heels were uncomfortable and they had no utility, other than to display one’s luxury. The men who wore them did not have to walk far and so to wear heels was a sign of privilege.
As men became more focused on education and economic and gender relations become more rigid, women are alternatively seen as emotional and unable to be educated. Women’s desirability is increasingly linked to “foolish” fashion. Heels become a symbol of femininity for the same reason they were once loved by wealthy European men: they are painful, impractical and frivolous. Men no longer wear heels because social ideas of gender have changed – men are supposed to embody practicality while women are treated as being irrational.
High heeled shoes fell out of favour with both women and men in France during the French Revolution. Civil conflict brings about death and poverty. Class and gender relations change once more. Displays of affluence through dress and shoes are no longer socially acceptable to the same degree. Consequently, high heels are once again seen as impractical for both genders.
By the mid-19th Century, as photography takes off and technology becomes more available, pornographers began photographing women in heels, thus introducing a gendered perception of heels as a symbol of women’s erotic value. This vision remains today, although feminists, transsexual men, and queer perspectives challenge the gender binary embodied through shoes and dress (or as we say in sociology, they challenge the presentation of self).
Author Elizabeth Semmelhack was asked by the BBC if heels could once again become standard gear for men. She replies:
Absolutely… If it becomes a signifier of actual power, then men will be as willing to wear it as women.
Doing Gender: Fashion and Gender as Inequality
The history of heels is a poignant example of West and Zimmerman’s theory of doing gender. These researchers argued that gender is something we “do” – we perform gender through the way we dress, the way we talk and walk, and the way we think about men and women in general. Although societies are structured around the idea that men and women are fundamentally different, history shows that the way in which femininity and masculinity are viewed changes over time. Certain fashions and ideas once associated with men are now seen as “effeminate” or the opposite of what men are supposed to be.
West and Zimmerman show that gender is an “accomplishment.” People are held accountable for their gender identities through the way they look. If you wear something associated with the opposite gender, then you disrupt the notion that men and women are “naturally” meant to act a certain way. Through the seemingly quirky example of powerful men wearing heels, such as Louis XIV in the portrait to the right, we see how doing gender is also a way of perpetuating inequality.
As West and Zimmerman argue, “Gender is a powerful ideological device”: it reproduces inequality through our everyday actions and it also limits our choices. Something so mundane such as the reason why women wear heels while men do not is locked to a complex history. Heels are uncomfortable to wear but they bring pleasure to those who wear them because they help us symbolise our social identities.
Men once wore heels but now they do not. This is not simply due to some passing fad. Men who wear heels generally draw laughter, ridicule, fear or confusion, and yet this was not always the case. Men who wear heels are thought to be wearing women’s fashion, although not all women wear heels and not all people who wear heels fit into some neat category of masculine or feminine. The social and historical variations of what high heels symbolise demonstrates how class, time, place and social structures control how we think about and act out our our gender identities.
The sociology of the mundane helps us see how the things we take for granted, such as our fashion choices, have a deeper meaning that should be critically explored.