The Curious History of Men in Heels at Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum

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They say behind every great man stands a great woman. She often stands tall, properly stilted with high-heels, in what has become one of the most feminine accessories short of the bra.

But who would think the stiletto is actually a nod to her male counterpart?

Men In Heels

One of the more surprising elements explored in Bata Shoe Museum’s latest exhibition, “Standing Tall: The Curious History of Men in Heels,” is that men embraced the heel first. Unlike today’s man, earlier generations were “happy, happy to wear heels,” said Elizabeth Semmelhack, the senior curator of the exhibition which debuted this week in Toronto.

Though at first laughable in the context of contemporary male fashion, the heel’s origins are logically masculine. Heels were first found in 17th century Persia, crafted to hook into stirrups, allowing a stance that aided a male warrior’s ability to shoot an arrow.

men in heels

Men’s heels battled onward, making their first pitstops amongst Western Europe’s aristocracy, eventually gracing the most noble of soles like Louis XIV of France, who wore them not for battle, but for elevated height and status. The appeal of the high-heel eventually fell flat in the 1730s, but according to Semmelhack, “there were pockets of time when heels were reintegrated into the male wardrobe not as a way of challenging masculinity but rather as a means of proclaiming it.”

From The Beatles To The Marlboro Man

Trudging through history, a version of the resilient heel continues to punctuate modern cultural shifts from the Peacock Revolution’s high-heeled “Beatle Boot” worn by none other than the Beatles, all the way to the Marlboro Man’s cowboy boot, an icon of the Wild West.

You might assume that men’s heels have sidestepped our contemporary fashions altogether, but they only do so by lacking nomenclature; what is this season’s Bruno Orlato Flat, a ‘Derby’ shoe with an obvious platform designed by Christian Louboutin, if not a pastiche to the heeled shoes worn by 17th century French royalty under a different name? The smaller scale of the heel might keep today’s man closer to the ground, but his aspirations for stature are timeless.

Men in Heels

Louis XIV of France in heels. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Not-To-Miss Exhibits

While Toronto is far from the heel’s birthplace of modern day Iran, visitors to Standing Tall are guided step-by-step through the ups and downs of its popularity over the past four hundred years. Often unheeded in fashion today, the men’s heel will continue enjoying its fifteen minutes of fame at the Bata Shoe Museum, part of the largest shoe collection in the world (take that, Imelda Marcos!), through the end of May 2016, celebrating the museum’s 20th year anniversary launch. Also included in the launch is an upcoming traveling exhibition, “Out of the Box,” an exploration of the rise of sneaker culture which will debut at the Brooklyn Museum in New York on June 10th with later stops in Ohio, Georgia and Kentucky.

men in heels

The heel quickly became referential in European aristocracy who adopted the concept on the pretense of aesthetics, not for battle, resulting form their fascination with Persian style.

men in heels

One of its latest peaks, and perhaps its ultimate showstopper, proves that not all heels were made for going the distance, as they became modes of expressing individuality in the 1970s disco era.

*Photo Credit: : Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum Image © 2015 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada (photo: Ron Wood)



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