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High heels: gift of Iranian soldiers to the world

Feb 7, 2013

You may find it surprising to find out that high heeled shoes, once worn by European aristocrats to signify aristocracy and glamour, were indeed used historically by Iranian Cavalry, as BBC quotes Elizabeth Semmelhack of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto.

A men's 17th Century Persian shoe, covered in shagreen - horse-hide with pressed mustard seeds

"The high heel was worn for centuries throughout the near east as a form of riding footwear," says Elizabeth Semmelhack of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. Good horsemanship was essential to the fighting styles of Persia - the historical name for modern-day Iran. "When the soldier stood up in his stirrups, the heel helped him to secure his stance so that he could shoot his bow and arrow more effectively."

At the end of the 16th Century, Persia's Shah Abbas I had the largest cavalry in the world. He was keen to forge links with rulers in Western Europe to help him defeat his great enemy, the Ottoman Empire. So in 1599, Abbas sent the first Persian diplomatic mission to Europe - it called on the courts of Russia, Germany and Spain. A wave of interest in all things Persian passed through Western Europe. Persian style shoes were enthusiastically adopted by aristocrats, who sought to give their appearance a virile, masculine edge that, it suddenly seemed, only heeled shoes could supply.

When it comes to history's most notable shoe collectors, the Imelda Marcos of his day was arguably Louis XIV of France. For a great king, he was rather diminutively proportioned at only 5ft 4in (1.63m). He supplemented his stature by a further 4in (10cm) with heels, often elaborately decorated with depictions of battle scenes.

Louis XIV of France

The heels and soles were always red - the dye was expensive and carried a martial overtone. The fashion soon spread overseas - Charles II of England's coronation portrait of 1661 features him wearing a pair of enormous red, French style heels - although he was over 6ft (1.85m) to begin with.

In the 1670s, Louis XIV issued an edict that only members of his court were allowed to wear red heels. In theory, all anyone in French society had to do to check whether someone was in favour with the king was to glance downwards. In practice, unauthorised, imitation heels were available.

Although Europeans were first attracted to heels because the Persian connection gave them a macho air, a craze in women's fashion for adopting elements of men's dress meant their use soon spread to women and children.

From that time, Europe's upper classes followed a unisex shoe fashion until the end of the 17th Century, when things began to change again, when the intellectual movement that came to be known as the "Enlightenment" brought with it a new respect for the rational and useful and an emphasis on education rather than privilege. Men's fashion shifted towards more practical clothing. In England, aristocrats began to wear simplified clothes that were linked to their work managing country estates.

It was the beginning of what has been called the Great Male Renunciation, which would see men abandon the wearing of jewellery, bright colours and ostentatious fabrics in favour of a dark, more sober, and homogeneous look. High heels were seen as foolish and effeminate. By 1740 men had stopped wearing them altogether.

But it was only 50 years before they disappeared from women's feet too, falling out of favour after the French Revolution.

By the time the heel came back into fashion, in the mid-19th Century, photography was transforming the way that fashions - and the female self-image - were constructed.

Link to full story here.

»This is a summary of the original feature in Farsi. To request a more extensive translation of the Farsi text, please contact us.

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