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The Colorful History of the High Heel

When we talk about the invention of high heels, we generally are referring to the first time they were used specifically for fashion. They were in existence for centuries prior to coming into use as a fashion item, primarily for functional purposes only.

Catherine of Medici who lived in the fifteen-hundreds is the person who we credit with the invention of the heel. Her story is interesting.

When she was barely a teenager, she was engaged to the young man who later became the French King. This was, of course, an arranged marriage. Catherine was diminutive and unattractive. Even worse, her betrothed had a mistress who was tall and more appealing than her.

So she used two-inch heels to give herself more height and to add an elegant sway to her walk. The change was apparently a remarkable one, noticed by everyone. Consequently, it caught on and the heels quickly became associated with social status.

About a hundred and fifty years later, King Louis XIV created a law stating that you could only wear red heels if you were of noble blood, and you could not wear heels higher than the King's. He liked to wear heels that were as high as five inches. At this time the heels were large and wide and he commissioned his favorite artists to paint and etch pictures on them, pictures of his favorite war scenes.

As time went on, the fascination with the human foot intensified and the heels on shoes started to get taller and more slender, similar to the stiletto heels of today.

This trend toward a more slender heel was appealing to women, who found the shoe to be much more feminine than the clunky platform shoes they had evolved from.

Even in the literature of the time there were erotic references to the human foot, with phrases and words such as "finely arched," and "delicately curved." Following this trend, women started binding their feet to make them smaller. They started using the high heel to create a what was considered to be a look of refinement and sexual appeal.

This trend did not go unnoticed by the Puritans, and there were laws passed in the American Colonies which specifically prohibited women from using high heels to attract a man. Such a practice was associated with witchcraft. The high heel had reached the status of the magical, and was perceived to be a potential tool of female sorcery.

It's well-known that the French Revolution did away with many of the self-indulgent and aristocratic fashions, and the heel was a victim of the changes. Because the high heels had become associated with the wealthy class, Napoleon outlawed them in an effort to help eliminate class warfare. That didn't stop Marie Antoinette from wearing them when she dressed for her own execution, however.

It wasn't until the mid 1800s that heels recovered from the revolution and came back into fashion. By then, industrial advances such as the sewing machine increased the options in shoe making dramatically and began to have a great impact on styles.

The heels were quite high, like stilettos, and were touted as being beneficial to health because they supposedly improved posture. However, it didn't go unnoticed that the heel had a sexual appeal and even outside Puritan circles they were considered a tool for ensnaring a man. A derogatory term became associated with the high heel: "poisoned hook."

The trend of the heel really broke free once it hit America, where people didn't care about terms like "poisoned hook." The first high heel factory in America got its start in the 1880s and the high heel quickly became a favorite of American women.