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When Real Men Wore High Heels
cowboys

High-heel, over-the-knee boots seem to be back in fashion. But you are highly unlikely to see a man wearing them – that is, unless you go to the new Broadway musical, Kinky Boots.

Kinky_Boots

Kinky Boots: Billy Porter as Lola, a drag performer, in this musical at the Al Hirschfeld Theater. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Ironically, three hundred years ago it would be equally scandalous for a woman to be seen wearing high-heel boots. Unless you were a Russian Empress, who didn’t have anything to lose after she led a coup-d’etat against her husband, deposed him, and (most probably) had him murdered:

CatherineII

Catherine the Great wearing the uniform of her Preobrazhenskii regiment, by Vigilius Eriksen, 1762. Source

High-heel boots were, most definitely, part of male attire. In fact, it was the most masculine and martial of men who wore them:

mousquetaires

Musketeers in their kinky high-heel, over the knee boots (Source)

High-heel boots, however, were a relatively new fashion in the early modern Europe (‘early modern’ refers roughly to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries). During the Middle Ages and Renaissance well-dressed men wore low-heeled shoes and boots (although they sometimes made up for this deficiency by wearing shoes with extravagantly long toes, called poulaines).

Poulaines

Source

What was worse, they even made armored  boots with long, pointy tips:

armor_with_poulaines

A suit of armor with poulaines (c.1480) Source

Now there are all kinds of problems with wearing long, pointy and heal-less shoes, when you ride a horse. And, if you want to get anywhere while wearing this suit of armor, which probably doubled the weight of the guy it protected (especially when you add a sword and a shield), you have to ride.

To see why such shoes are a poor design, consider the beautiful functionality of a cowboy boot, the result of 1500 years of cumulative cultural evolution.

cowboys

Cowboys sitting on the fence during a rodeo in Texas (source)

The starting point of this evolution was the invention the stirrup, probably by the Mongolian nomadic people called Xianbei around 300 AD. This was such a useful invention that by the sixth century it spread through all of Eurasia, from Japan to Europe. By providing the rider with unprecedented stability, the stirrup made heavy cavalry (actually, any kind of cavalry) much more effective. Some historians even argued that the stirrup gave rise to feudalism in medieval Europe, and something very similar in Japan (take this with a grain of salt).

The problem with the stirrup is that when you fall off the horse (and if you ride horses a lot, especially under the chaotic conditions of war, you will inevitably do so once in a while), there is a danger of your foot being caught in the stirrup. Countless riders have been dragged to their deaths by panicking horses.

And here is where a properly designed stirrup/boot combination comes in. An iron stirrup with large enough opening for the boot allows you to kick it off as you fall. A high heel, on the other hand, gives you the stability by preventing the foot from slipping through the stirrup. It helps to have a very slick, slippery sole for ease of foot extraction in case of mishap.

High heels and slippery soles make for rather uncomfortable walking (I would not recommend wearing true cowboy boots in New England’s winter!). But for riding it’s just right.

John_Wayne

Source

What is interesting is that it took a lot of time for the Europeans to catch on to the utility of high heels. In fact, according to a recent BBC article, Europeans never figured it out on their own – this invention came to Europe from Iran.

BBC

Source

The fashion for high heels went all the way to the top.

LouisXIV

Louis XIV wearing his trademark heels in a 1701 portrait by Hyacinthe Rigaud (source)

In the early-modern Europe high-heeled footwear also served an important function of distinguishing the nobility from the peasants. Then came the Age of Revolutions (from the French Revolution of 1789 to the Paris Commune of 1870), which introduced a new era that stressed equality and blurred class lines. At the same time, the horses gradually lost their function as the means of land transport, being replaced by railroads and the automobile. And so high heels lost their functionality, and became just a fashion fad. Or nostalgia.

Clint_Eastwood

Clint Eastwood, the Man with No Name (source)

15 Comments

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15 Comments

  1. Kevin says:

    Great post! ala your Evolution of Pants series. Men’s “dress shoes” also notably have (sometimes “high”) heels.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      Thanks. I admit to owning a pair of fairly high-heel dress boots (but not too high, so they are comfortable to walk in).

      • O.Voron says:

        Heels help you mantain a good posture. Mens boots heel height is about one inch or slightly over, you won’t call it high, will you? Or your boots’ heels are higher than that?

  2. Isegoria says:

    While heavy armor certainly gave knights a workout, it wasn’t quite as heavy as you implied; it weighed “just” 30 to 50 kilograms.

    The shoes were a problem though, as were the greaves (shin guards) and cuisses (thigh armor), because they placed so much mass so far out on the extremities.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      Remember, European knights were small guys by our standards – weighing 60-70 kg. So when you add together the weight of armor, shield, sword, and lance – you are pretty close to doubling the weight. Of course you cannot walk far in such armor, and you have other gear to carry, not just weapons. So such heavy armor was pratical only for cavalry.

      Thanks for the link!

      • jeb says:

        I once watched a show on one of those science/history/whatever channels that focused on a particular book of fighting techniques that was written in the Middle Ages. Among other things the book covered armored knights, and the show advanced the claim that typical armor was not as heavy or limiting as commonly believed. One scene from the show had a fully armored knight running and jumping over obstacles, and then quite easily mounting a horse without aid. Another scene showed a sword fight on foot between an armored knight and an unarmored opponent — both experts in the use of medieval weapons. The armor did slow down the knight, but not as much one might expect, and his opponent said that while he felt he had a definite edge in terms of quickness, he had difficulty taking advantage of it.

        BTW, the point of the sword fight was to try to understand one of the illustrations in the book, which appeared to show an unarmored fighter grasping his sword by the blade and slinging the hilt against the head of his armored opponent. The conclusion they came to was that this actually worked — the unarmored fighter manages to clip the helmet of his opponent just once, and not even that hard, but the armored fighter said it made his ears ring and he felt like he was going to be sick to his stomach.

        • Peter Turchin says:

          I might have seen the same show… Armor came in several varieties. By the 15th century, the very elaborate (and heavy) armor was used primarily in tournaments. Under war conditions, many knights preferred open-faced helmets (sallets) that allowed better vision, and lighter armor that allowed them to function longer without becoming exhausted.

          But heavy armor also was a good protection against arrows and crossbow bolts. I just finished reading the Harlequin trilogy by Bernard Cornwell, worth reading to understand the effect of archery on armor (Cornwell does a good job in terms of historical accuracy – within the limits set by narrative, naturally enough).

          All kinds of fascinating stories can be told…

          • jeb says:

            When I was growing up I assumed that body armor was a thing of the past — useful against swords and arrows, but forever obsoleted by firearms. And then it came back!

            I wonder how useful modern body armor would be in medieval combat. I understand the soft bullet-proof vests the police wear don’t perform well against knives and arrows. Heavy combat armor would probably do fine, but body coverage isn’t great.

            Coverage is something that could stand a lot of improvement anyway though. If we make sufficient progress in materials science, we could end up with fully armored soldiers once again — maybe like the Imperial Stormtroopers in Star Wars! (Not that their armor ever seemed to do them much good…)

            Which brings to mind rule #1 of the Evil Overlord: “My Legions of Terror will have helmets with clear plexiglass visors, not face-concealing ones.” (Google it! :-)

  3. g.vander says:

    It’s part of the emancipation of men. Lots of men love high boots and particularly skyhigh boots worn by women. But there are many men I know in the Netherlands who own high boots. Although being a hetero man I’am a boot fetishist and posess nearly a hundred pair of high to skyhigh boots. The shown picture is lovely. Thanks for sharing the link.

  4. H. E. Lexus says:

    Gotta love it. I love my heels and enjoy wearing them out as much as I can. Heels for ever!!! 😉

  5. JohnN says:

    I had a pair of OTK boots with platforms. It saved me getting a ladder whenever I had to change a lightbulb in e ceiling fixture .

  6. bboy says:

    I love the stories about the Texas Rangers who wore pointy toe cowboy boots with sky high heels. They didn’t do too much walking, mostly riding. Their very high heels gave them authority for their day. I have a pair of these, with pointy toes and 6 inch heels and I love wearing them with very short cutoff jeans and a big Texas Rangers belt. I’m just a hetero guy with a boot fetish, I guess.

  7. wagnerel says:

    Just came in late to the party, but what a great article. I love well-turned male legs in heels, darn it. Heels lengthen them and gives them a toned appearance. Now if we could just get hosen or stockings to come back in fashion 😉

    But one small nit, with the exception of some special tournament armor, The European plate armor worn in the later middle ages and Early Renaissance was highly flexible and weighed around 20-25 kg, less than the gear worn by many modern soldiers in battle. Not light, but they could certainly walk and fight in it.

    link to metmuseum.org