Uzbeki riding shoe, Afghanistan, 1850
“Never have a few inches mattered so much.” An apt tagline for the latest exhibit currently showing at the Bata Shoe Museum entitled Standing Tall: The Curious History of Men in Heels. As the title indicates, the exhibition focuses on heeled shoes for men. The first heels were in fact worn by men of the Near East as riding shoes several hundred years ago and have undergone many shifts and transformations in style and in cultural context. From the cowboy boot of the frontier to the platform heels of glam rock, high heels for men have had a complex history. I recently spoke with the exhibition’s curator Elizabeth Semmelhack to get her insights on the tangly but fascinating history of the men’s heel.
Megan King: Why now did you chose for this exhibition to launch, aside from it being the 20th anniversary of the museum?
Elizabeth Semmelhack: I’ve been working on the history of the high heel since I got here [the museum], and way back in 2001 when I did the first exhibition on high heels, my first question was, “Why do people wear high heels and why today do only have of us wear them and more importantly, where do these things even come from?” And so my research took me back to the Near East where the heel was innovated as a form of horseback riding footwear and men were the first to wear it. European men embraced it because of its associations with masculinity, and so that theory has been a part of my work for the past 14 years. I did an interview with BBC a while back and it went viral, this information about men being the first to wear high heels, and so I thought, “Ok, well why don’t I do an exhibition completely dedicated to the topic, to really clarify what my research has shown.
There’s been a lot of discussion about gender in fashion and the media beyond lately–– trans model Andreja Pejic and others, actress Laverne Cox, and now Bruce Jenner. These people are offering perspectives on gender that have always existed but have been scarcely heard. Perhaps not always historically, but at present high heels for men transgress conventional ideas about male gender identity. Do you see this movement towards a more open understanding of gender identity and the content of this exhibit as being potentially in conversation with each other?
Well, what I think is important and hopefully people will leave the exhibition understanding is that high heels, like gender, are culturally constructed. There were moments in time, there were certain professions such as the cowboy, where high heels were worn and were blatant expressions of masculinity in this case, and nobody bats an eye. And so, the reason we have so much hypersensitivity around this issue is that historically, there has always been gender binaries––not in every culture, but certainly in the west––and I think that it would be wonderful if people could leave understanding that gender, just like high heels, are culturally constructed and that it doesn’t matter if you wear high heels or don’t, there’s nothing, I would argue, that genetically programs you to prefer one or the other.
Right, and obviously nowadays men don’t really wear high heels much, with the exception maybe being members of the LGBT community. Do you think that maybe now, that they’re the pioneers for this sort of thing?
I do, but I find it somewhat problematic because I think that women have worn high heels consistently––well, there’s been times where high heels have gone out of women’s fashion as well, but today we associate high heels with femininity, but the difference between’s men’s heels and women’s heels is that very few men will wear women’s heels which tend to be very narrow, and I find that to be the interesting thing, especially when we live in an era where women’s stiletto’s are talked about in terms of female power. And so, what I’m interested in is when men actually do step into women’s footwear, as a means of expressing power, that will suggest a real gender shift, a real shift in gender equality. If the heels continually represent men’s traditions of high heels, we haven’t advanced as much as we would hope.
And plus, I feel like, stilettos, which are the typical female shoe, when you think of men wearing them today, you think of the history of drag.
And it’s mocking women, it’s not empowering women at all.
It’s not earnestly borrowing from the female wardrobe, it is often burlesquing femininity.
Exactly, because I think it would be healthy to explore the use of high heels if you were exploring femininity in an honest and appreciative way. But sometimes it’s just really flat.
And one of the things for me, whenever I lecture on the topic, I’ll often start my lectures with an image of the top bankers in the world, top female bankers in the world. And they’re all there, they’re all dressed in different outfits, but they almost all have on high heels. And in no point in my discussion of them does the audience have any reaction. We just talk about, you know, they’re beautiful, they look powerful, professional. And in the next slide I show is a group of doctors, male doctors, who are wearing just their everyday suits, and they’re all wearing high heels, and the crowd bursts out into laughter, and I want to know what’s funny about that.
Right, because women dress like men and that’s normal.
Well, even more to the point, why is a men dressed in even just a pair of shoes that are feminine, why does that cause laughter? What’s funny about being female?
Yeah, why is it a joke, why is a man in women’s shoes seem self-debasing?
Correct. And so, having said that, a man walking down the street in a pair of women’s pumps would stop traffic. A woman walking down the street in pumps nobody sees it. But a man walking down the street in cowboy boots, nobody sees either, so I’m interested also in just the actual inches related to height and heels, and when we do see heels on men and when we don’t see heels on men and what causes that cultural blindness.
Yeah, because you see a lot of men’s brogues and oxfords, and they have maybe an inch, and inch and a half.
But there you get an incredibly amount of sensitivity like I have in the exhibition. Sarkozy, the former president of France, was lampooned constantly for having a slightly higher heel than the average man’s heel. I mean, we’re talking millimeters, and yet it was enough to stop traffic. And so, the power dynamics, the issues of effeminacy, these have been a part of men’s culture, and heels sometimes are a part of that discussion and sometimes aren’t.
Do you think it has something to do with certain ideas about artifice. I mean, women have been wearing corsets to make their waists appear smaller, they do their hair, the makeup. High heels are an added element to this “artifice,” and a lot of times men like to decry women for getting plastic surgery or wearing too much makeup because they think they’re being tricked. So do you think that maybe there’s a lack of honestly that people see with men wearing heels?
Yup, that’s exactly it. And so what I write about in the book is that in the 30s when eugenics is building on earlier Darwinian concepts of basically “might makes right,” you know, survival of the fittest. And then you have scientific studies sort of suggesting that the larger male naturally is more attractive to the female, so at that point high heels become extremely problematic for men because although height is linked to things like higher pay, supposedly greater desirability, high heels simply emphasize what you lack as apposed to augment it. And it is it’s artifice that causes men its greatest grief.
How do you see the use of heels for men transforming over the years. Is it just like any other trend in fashion or are there significant motivators?
Yeah, I feel like there is no trend in fashion there’s only political and cultural motivators. And so, I don’t believe that men have ever worn heels as a whim of fashion, they’ve worn heels in a variety of different times and different contexts because of the social moment. The book that I wrote to go along with the exhibition does deal with these exact issues. So how is it that heels are important in the court of Louis XIV, why do men abandon the heel in the 18th century and it becomes a signifier of femininity, how is it problematized when it tries to reenter in the early 19th century, and how is a significant heel allowed to be worn by men who are said to represent rugged masculinity. All of these have to do with things as wide ranging as Darwinian concepts to the opening of the West and manifest destiny, to American nationalism, to 30s eugenics. It really is very rich, very complex.
Menswear and footwear suffer from a lack of variety that doesn’t plague women’s clothes and shoes nearly as much, yet the selection of shoes you’ve put together are quite varied, from the 17th century shoes for noble boys to the Ferradini platforms worn by Elton John to the rugged stacked heel cowboy boots. How do you see these shoes, varied as they are, asserting masculine ideals? Are they different or is there ultimately a fundamental understanding of masculinity that reads through all of these shoes?
I think that uniform of sameness that’s introduced into mens fashion at the end of the 17th century and really taking hold in the 18th century is very much linked to Enlightenment concepts of how idealized masculinity is defined. Men are supposedly more rational than women, they aren’t interested in how they look––although, god forbid you ask them to put on a tutu. They are just as concerned with misstepping as a woman might be. But one of the differences in men’s fashion that is now changing is that men have not traditionally been expected, even though they have followed larger trends, to express individuality through dress. There’s been more of a heard mentality. You see this a great deal in formal attire, where all men can show up in a tuxedo and women are beholden to wear a different dress. God forbid a woman show up to an event in the same dress as anybody else. At the same time, I have an exhibition on sneaker culture that’s opening in Brooklyn soon, and sneakers are actually one of the most diverse forms of footwear and I think men are beginning to, in a very wide ranging way, be allowed to show individuality through footwear choice. But, having said that, this concept of male uniformity through dress is in broad strokes very true, but you can see through the variety of footwear in this exhibition that sameness doesn’t mean sameness across time, it means sameness within a moment. So, a guy in a pair of cowboy boots walking into a party–– this would be totally historically inappropriate but, if he walked into the court of Louis XIV they would both have heels on but it would be very different footwear. So I think there has been a huge amount of change in mens fashion, including their footwear, that we don’t often consider or see, so that’s another thing I hope people will get from the exhibition, that there is a range of styles.
So within the wide range of styles in the exhibition, do you think that there is a consistent projection of masculinity across these styles or are they reflecting cultural shifts regarding ideal masculinity?
Well, I think that they do reflect profound cultural differences, for instance in the earlier years it was often related to court dress or upper class dress, and that was based on birth. Enlightenment thinking says otherwise, people shouldn’t get power from birth order or privilege of birth, it should be based on rationality. Men are rational. All men are rational. All men are educatable, and that creates democracy. So manliness goes from courtly, which there is also a subtext of manly in terms of military performance, but courtly, which is very much based on privilege of birth, and it goes to manly which is based on capability and is much more democratic. So what that means is that anybody can be a cowboy, you just have to have the guts to go do it. Manliness replaces courtliness as politics moves from monarchical structures to democratic structures, so masculinity is transformed and rugged individualism becomes important. It’s interesting that the heel remains, it’s no longer the heel of the French court, it’s the heel of the wild west. But both are being used to express masculinity.
And when you think of the 70s, when they’re wearing those huge platforms like Elton John and David Bowie, they’re subverting the dominant masculinity of the moment, but really they’re asserting a type of masculinity in being so strong willed in their vision of themselves.
And, I think it’s also important that they’re being promoted in the media as being absolutely thronged by female followers. Whatever transgression––I mean, I wouldn’t deny that they’re playing with gender transgression, but ultimately when you think about the various models of masculinity that were wearing platforms, be it the stereotype blacksploitation pimp, who clearly controls females and commodifies female sexuality, to rock stars who cultivate these throngs of groupies who can’t control themselves around their rockstar presence, that I feel that what’s actually happening is they’re pushing the boundaries of what’s possible and saying, “I can do all of this, and I’m still a man.” They’re not, again, incorporating traditional aspects of femininity into these performances and that almost always the clothing that they’re wearing references the dress of other men. In the 70s almost all the period text related to the platform high heel is linked to Louis XIV. Long hair is linked to Jesus. They are not linking them to female models. So, I think it’s actually a homosocial action as opposed to one that was actually gender bending.
There’s a singular virility that cuts through them all. Even now you kind of see that with Kanye West, who’s definitely a pioneer of that whole sneaker culture, he wore the leather kilt by Riccardo Tisci for Givenchy. I see the same sort of mindset with him.
He’s recently worn a pair of boots with a significant heel and got lambasted for it. Still people asked if he borrowed them from his wife, but still they’re these sturdy heels that reference the tradition of men’s footwear, they weren’t little stilettos. But I think that it’s definitely in the air, and for the first time men are actually borrowing from the female wardrobe. Even the Celine sneakers is a perfect example. I think we are at an interesting moment.
What does the trajectory of men in heels look like beyond 2015 to you?
I mean, I do feel, as I said earlier, that heels are a completely mutable object. They can be given any meaning we want to give them. I think that if we were to arrive at gender equity, we would have equity of heel use.
(L) 5.5 inch platform boots by Toronto shoemaker Master John, Canadian, 1970s. (R) 19th century European mens boots with remarkable fine nail detailing on the soul, European, 1820s-1840s.
(L) High heeled shoes belonging to a well-to-do young boy, British or French, mid-17th century. (R) Customoots made by T.O. Day for the Mirvish stage production of Kinky Boots, American 2013.
(L) Cowboy boots, American, Tony Lama, 20th century. (R) Jackboot, English, 1690-1710.
(L) Ferradini platforms with a 7.5 inche heel worn by Elton John, Italian, 1972-1975. (R) Persian leather riding shoes which were the inspiration for early European heels for men, 17th century.
(L) 17th century men's mules which would have been worn at home as a part of gentlemen's undress, English, 1670-1715. (R) Chelsea boots, a bastion of the 60s Peacock Revolution, previously worn by John Lennon, English, 1960s.