Men, Heels and History

A rare sight – men in high heels at a gay pride party in Spain in 2005.

Warning: I rely heavily on the gender binary due to having trouble discussing the topic without doing so.

As I was scrolling through street-syle-themed tumblr sites this morning, I thought, as I always do, how ridiculously painful it must be to wear the heels I see in these style photos, especially since the “street style” theme indicates that these outfits, and the killer shoes that accompany them, are supposed to be semi-casual daywear.

As a person who shops almost exclusively in men’s sections (because I have no tolerance for uncomfortable clothing made for women), I have complicated feelings toward “femme” clothing and heels. While I unabashedly love all things considered traditionally “femme”, I only love them from a distance. I love the idea that you can reshape your entire bone structure with some cleverly applied bronzer, but I would never spend an hour – or however long – doing that in the morning. I love the way those on-trend oval nails look like shiny claws, but I can’t give myself a manicure that would make typing arduous. I love “femme” fashion, but I can’t adopt a style that would make me so uncomfortable. I’m not making a defiant statement about female beauty, by any means, I’m just lazy when it comes to appearances and would rather spend the time it takes to put on make-up watcing “Community” reruns. So, unhappily, I wear frumpy boys’ clothes. I say ‘unhappily’ not because I don’t like wearing clothes that sometimes have “MENSWEAR” on the tag: I say ‘unhappily’ because I too often have to go to the men’s section to find clothes that meet my standards of comfort and practicality.

Every time I think about gendered dress, I get a little upset. Why does female clothing connote beauty but not utility? Why does male clothing connote utiliy and/or status symbolism but not sexual attractiveness? You already know why, so I’m going to answer my question succinctly: gendered fashion reflects patriarchal gender values (re: women and beauty, men and status/wealth or practicality).

I’m tired of this trend. I want cisboys in killer heels and stick-on nails, and cisgirls in killer heels and stick-on nails. I want cisboys with stubble they can’t be bothered to razor off in the morning, and cisgirls with leg hair (gasp!). I want style to be determined not by gender, but by how willing or unwilling a person is to walk in near-stilts in order to look fierce (because people in heels do look fierce). I don’t want “WOMENSWEAR” to code for “here, wear this to look uncomfortable but sexy” and “MENSWEAR” to code for “this will let her/him know how much you’re worth” or “this is a practical oufit for your practical concerns.” Girls shouldn’t have to go to the men’s section to find pants that are not so tight they basically X-ray their legs, and men shouldn’t have to face serious shame for wanting to wear “femme” clothing (we shouldn’t degrade femininity in general).

As I was thinking these things this morning, I remembered this awesome article that I’d read on BBC’s website entitled “Why did men stop wearing high heels?” by William Kremer. It is one of the best articles on clothing (and the historical origins of an accessory) that I have ever read. The author explains how shoes with high heels entered the European style scene (originally, they were worn by men) and how over time the purpose of men’s clothing shifted away from flamboyance and status symbolism toward the bare practicality championed during the Enlightenment. Heels were then left to women, who were seen as, frankly, uneducatable decorative ornaments. I cannot reccomend this piece enough. Read the full thing. Here is a very short excerpt from the end of the article:

The 1960s saw a return of low heeled cowboy boots for men and some dandies strutted their stuff in platform shoes in the 1970s.

But the era of men walking around on their toes seems to be behind us. Could we ever return to an era of guys squeezing their big hairy feet into four-inch, shiny, brightly coloured high heels?

“Absolutely,” says Semmelhack. There is no reason, she believes, why the high heel cannot continue to be ascribed new meanings – although we may have to wait for true gender equality first.

“If it becomes a signifier of actual power, then men will be as willing to wear it as women.” (emphasis added)


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