“I don’t know who invented the high heel,” Marilyn Monroe famously once said, “but women owe him a lot.” (Agree to disagree, Marilyn, unless you’re talking about a lot of pinched toes and blisters.) So who did invent the high heel? To answer that, we need to go way back — to a time long before Marilyn… and long before any woman would find herself in a pair of pumps:
1500s: Though the history of platformed shoes goes back all the way to Ancient Greece — where performers wore platforms up to four inches high serving to alert audiences to the “higher” social class of their characters — most scholars trace the emergence of the high heel to the 1500s, when they were worn as riding shoes by men in the Persian army.
1600s – early 1700s: A hundred years later, high heels find fans in French and English royalty, thanks to how impractical it is to walk in them. A high heel is an easy way to tell others you have no need for commoner activities like using your legs to move yourself about. Red soles make their debut, too — also a symbol of wealth, since red dye doesn’t come cheap. Women start wearing the shoes (along with masculine hats and short haircuts) in an effort to masculinize their looks.
Mid-1700s: Not long after ladies start wearing them, a gender divide emerges in high heel design. Men’s heels get lower and squarer. Meanwhile, women’s shoes get more uncomfortable, tapering at the tips to make their feet look smaller under long skirts. By 1740, high heels disappear from men’s wardrobes entirely. In 1790, women follow suit, ditching heels in favor of flats.
1850: Now that high heels are seen as effeminate, men continue to stick to flat shoes. But for women, the breakup doesn’t last long. After spending the first half of the century in flats, women return to heels. The pump style (known as a “classic women’s court shoe”) comes into fashion, and brass heel pieces support higher heels.
1920s – 1930s: As hemlines rise, buckles, straps, cutouts, satin, brocade, and other details glam things up south of the ankle. Platforms make their first, brief appearance in modern wardrobes in the late 1930s, but they don’t take off just yet.
1940s: A compromise, instead: the comfortable wedge. The new style is in regular rotation during the 1940’s, giving pumps a run slow, pained walk for their money.
1950s: After a decade of comfort, we’ve had enough — and the stiletto is born! It’s hard to pinpoint who exactly is behind the iconic style — historians credit multiple designers, including Salvatore Ferragamo and Roger Vivier.
1960s: Feet get a break as heel heights go mod. Kitten heels and low block heels are all the rage now, but not for long…
1970s: The platform is back, and it’s (literally) bigger than ever. Even men get in on the action. We don’t hold back — the disco dance floor is full of pairs adorned with lights and live aquariums.
1980s – 1990s: We miss pumps, and we know just how to show it — white pumps, dyed satin pumps, pumps worn with ankle socks… it’s all fair game.
1993: Red-soled heels are back, thanks to Christian Louboutin. In business for two years at this point, he’s inspired to grab an assistant’s red nail polish and paint a drawing of a shoe design he’s working on. A star — and an iconic shoe — is born. “Men are like bulls,” Louboutin tells The New Yorker. “They cannot resist the red sole.” And if there’s any question about who he really designs for, he adds, “The core of my work is dedicated not to pleasing women but to pleasing men.” Oof.
2000s: The experimentation continues, with both pointy-toe and peep-toe pumps hitting it big. Meanwhile, Carrie Bradshaw makes Manolo a household name. Heels are now not just decidedly feminine; in some cases, they’re actually a requirement for women. In 2016, actress and part-time receptionist Nicola Thorp challenges UK employment law, which allows companies to require female staff members to wear high heels and makeup.
Today: Globally, the average woman owns 20 pairs of shoes today — and if the runways are anything to go by, she’s about to make room in her closet for old-school kitten heels, next-level platforms, and 3D embellishments. Unfortunately, with greater variety does not come greater comfort — rather, surgeons and podiatrists report an uptick in toe-shortening, “foot tucks,” foot Botox, and other procedures requested by patients who want to be able to wear designer heels.