When we talk of high heeled shoes and men, the two somehow never seem to go together. And even if they do, the person is usually stereotyped as a member of the LGBTQ community or labelled a ‘sissy’ or ‘effeminate’, which is apparently a bad thing.
Sadly the society has taught the denizens of the 21st century to think and function by specifying certain roles to the binary and stating that sex and gender are divided into male and female. Recent developments like pride marches, parades and movements along with governments across the world recognising the difference between sex and gender, have done a lot to improve this thinking but, the stereotypes stick.
To prove the farce that is the gender binary construction on the basis of roles and performances that society thinks as normal for the two genders, we simply have to look at the gendering of everyday material objects. My favourite are high heeled shoes, perceived as a symbol of sex appeal and femininity in a woman and hence making a man “effeminate” when he wears them.
Constructs are essentially what the society conditions us to think. Their transitory nature can be seen by the very manner stereotypes surrounding them are broken and constructed through history. Did you know high heels were initially intended for men?
Around 1000BC, they were popular in Ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece to establish class differences. Even then heels were gender neutral and worn by upper-class people with the simple philosophy that only someone who didn’t have to work could possibly go around in such impractical footwear thus signifying privilege. This is a logic that high heels have followed for centuries now.
The first time high heels became popular was when they came to Europe on a diplomatic mission, sent by a Persian Shah. The heels were popular in the Middle East, especially Persia, where they were worn by horse riders.
This “impractical” fashion quickly spread through Europe and was adopted by aristocratic males who wore them as a symbol to assert their power, boldness, masculinity and status.
When the fashion was adopted by women around 17 century, to assert their “masculinity” and by lower classes to raise their status in society, the aristocracy merely increased the height of their shoes to set themselves apart. The heels also had another distinction besides height. Men wore broad heels and women wore skinny heels.
Christian Louboutin wasn’t the first to use red soles as a status symbol. Louis XIV, King of France, beat him to it. The monarch boosted his stature with heels—always red, an expensive dye. In the 1670s, Louis XIV issued an edict limiting red heels to members of his court; only the favoured few could wear this ostentatious colour.
Pierre Bourdieu in his theory of Class Distinction argued that aesthetic choices function as markers of class difference. Accordingly, the elite will take action to present themselves differently than non-elites, choosing different clothing, food, shoes. High prices help keep certain things the province of elites, allowing them to signify their power; but imitation is inevitable. Once something no longer effectively differentiates the rich from the rest, the rich will drop it.
Hence, as more women and lower class population adopted heels, aristocracy started shedding this fashion as it was now tainted by the lower classes. Upper-class men no longer wanted to associate themselves with heels, which now became a symbol of femininity and hence made them look effeminate.
During Enlightenment, men’s fashion became more practical, and heels for men was completely disposed of, as being silly and hence something that was for women. Soon, women and lower classes gave up the fashion too, a major factor being the French Revolution. Any symbol that reminded them of the old aristocracy was done away with.
The heels made a comeback in the mid- nineteenth century in the form of pornography. Women were painted in the nude, wearing nothing but heels. And it’s from here onwards that heels took on the role they play today as well i.e., a symbol of sex appeal, femininity and for women.
The changing role of heels hence carries an important message i.e., that cultural understanding of what is male and what is female changes over time. And hence establishes the fact that there is nothing inherently masculine or feminine.
Sex is biological (hormones, genitals ) while gender is cultural and social (practises and institutions). Recent studies have even established the indeterminacy of sex by identifying more than five types of it and New York City in 2016, recognised 31 types of genders legally. Which brings us back to the performative nature of gender and nothing being concrete. Like Judith Butler argues, gender can be understood as a series of performances or enactments which over time take on the appearance of being natural. By acting like men and women, we become men and women.
So ladies, gentlemen and dear humans who identify as both or neither or anything really, wear those heels with pride or don’t. Bend it like Beckham or Louboutin; the choice is yours.