A History Of Men In Heels In 18 Stunning Pairs

Photo: Ron Wood, courtesy of the Bata Shoe Museum (Toronto).
Despite the rapid progress gender-bending (and gender-neutral) dressing has made, one of the fashion industry's most "traditional" accessories is still the heel. Heels have been marketed exclusively to women — in the mainstream, at least — for centuries. Although heels have crossed the gender binary a handful of times, what men in heels look like today is not the same picture as, ahem, 400 years ago.

To kick off its 20th anniversary, the Bata Shoe Museum of Toronto is presenting Standing Tall: The Curious History Of Men In Heels: a full-blown — and utterly fascinating — history of men in heels. The exhibit features heels of all heights worn by rockstars, soldiers, and cowboys from different cultures and just about every corner of the world. If you can wrap your head around it, men have been wearing heels since the 1600s as a symbol of masculinity.

The exhibition asks a profound question: Why don't mean wear heels now? It's a provocative thought, because the cultural turning point in fashion where men in heels became unacceptable remains undocumented.

“When heels were introduced into fashion at the turn of the 17th century, men were the first to adopt them and they continued wearing heels as expressions of power and prestige for over 130 years,” Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator at the museum, explained. “Even after they fell from men’s fashion in the 1730s, 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."

Click through the slideshow ahead to see everything from heeled boots worn by warriors on the 17th century frontier, John Lennon's original Chelsea boot, and Elton John's '70s platforms. If you catch yourself in Canada anytime soon, you can see the shoes IRL at Toronto's Bata Shoe Museum until May 2016.
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1 of 18
Photo: Ron Wood, courtesy of the Bata Shoe Museum (Toronto).
German, mid-19th century
"Men of means wore refined and polished boots linked to the long tradition of equestrianism, while the boots worn by laborers were designed for durability. This pair of German boots are very similar to those worn on the Canadian and American frontiers."
2 of 18
Photo: Ron Wood, courtesy of the Bata Shoe Museum (Toronto).
French, turn of the 20th century
"At two inches, ‘military heels’ were considered high, but their blocky shape and stacked leather construction identified them as masculine."
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3 of 18
Photo: Ron Wood, courtesy of the Bata Shoe Museum (Toronto).
Italian, Ferradini, 1972-1975. Worn by Elton John
"This stage-worn shoe features a heel reaching seven-and-a-half inches in height. In the 1970s, men favored footwear with distinct heels rather than shoes with solid platforms, which were considered feminine."
4 of 18
Photo: Ron Wood, courtesy of the Bata Shoe Museum (Toronto).
Dutch, 16th century
"This tall boot dates to the 16th century and reflects the style of footwear used by men just prior to the adoption of the heel in Western dress. The sole of the boot features layers of leather creating a low platform that would have augmented height, but there is no evidence of a distinct heel."
5 of 18
Photo: Ron Wood, courtesy of the Bata Shoe Museum (Toronto).
American, early 1970s
"In the early 1970s, men were encouraged to use accessories, such as high-heeled shoes, to express their individuality."
6 of 18
Photo: Ron Wood, courtesy of the Bata Shoe Museum (Toronto).
Persian, 17th century
"The heel originated in Western Asia to fit into a stirrup for horseback riding. This pair of Persian riding shoes features shagreen-covered heels and is the type of footwear that may have inspired European men to wear heels."
7 of 18
Photo: Ron Wood, courtesy of the Bata Shoe Museum (Toronto).
Men’s mules, English, c. 1690-1715
"Men and women wore distinctly different heels by the end of the 17th century. Whether stacked or leather-covered, men’s heels were typically broad and sturdy. Women’s heels, in contrast, were most often leather-covered and very narrow. This pair of men’s mules would have been worn at home as part of a gentleman’s undress."
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8 of 18
Photo: Ron Wood, courtesy of the Bata Shoe Museum (Toronto).
English, early 1960s. Worn by John Lennon.
"The Beatles stood at the forefront of the Peacock Revolution, a movement in men’s fashion to reclaim the privilege of extravagant dress. Their signature look included 'mop-top' hair, tight-fitting suits, and the now famous 'Beatle boot.' These boots were typical Chelsea boots popular in men’s fashion since the 19th century, with the exception that they featured a significantly higher heels borrowed from male flamenco dancers. This boot was worn by John Lennon."
9 of 18
Photo: Ron Wood, courtesy of the Bata Shoe Museum (Toronto).
English, turn of the 18th century
"As the 17th century wore on, the type of heels worn by men expressed two distinctly different forms of masculinity. Leather-covered heels suggested refinement, while stacked leather connoted action and were commonly found on men’s riding boots. This ‘thigh’ boot features a high, stacked-leather heel and was clearly designed to be worn in harsh riding conditions, such as battle. The use of hard, thick, ‘jack’ leather provided a great deal of protection, while the stacked leather heel would have kept the rider’s foot in the stirrup."
10 of 18
Photo: Ron Wood, courtesy of the Bata Shoe Museum (Toronto).
Canadian, designed and made by Master John, 1973
"The Toronto shoemaker Master John made these men’s platform boots complete with five-and-a-half inch heels, appliquéd stars, and a veritable landscape in leather. In the 1970s, some men followed the lead of rock stars in adopting lavish personal adornment and elevating shoes, cultivating a persona at once dandyish and hyper-
masculine."
11 of 18
Photo: Ron Wood, courtesy of the Bata Shoe Museum (Toronto).
American, 1950s and 2014
"According to Western cultural ideals, men are ‘supposed’ to be naturally tall. Wearing heels only highlights perceived shortcomings, but lifts or inserts that can be hidden inside one’s shoes can be used covertly. In the 1950s, height was linked to success in business as this pamphlet promoting elevator shoes suggests. This pair of lifts from today is customizable, allowing the wearer to choose just how high he will go."
12 of 18
Photo: Ron Wood, courtesy of the Bata Shoe Museum (Toronto).
American, Justin & Tony Lama boots, 20th century
"Packer boots, like the more iconic pull-on cowboy boots, originated on the frontier and were also worn for horseback riding. They evolved from 19th century lace-up boots and allow wearers to customize the fit. Like other cowboy boots, packer boots feature high heels and are commonly embellished with embroidery. This unembellished boot was made by Justin Boots, one of the oldest cowboy boot makers, dating to the 1879. The embroidered example was made by Tony Lama, established in 1911."
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13 of 18
Photo: Ron Wood, courtesy of the Bata Shoe Museum (Toronto).
Italian, first half of the 18th century
"In addition to being associated with effeminacy, in the early years of the 18th century, the high heel was criticized as being an affront to God. Heels artificially increased height, and therefore, went against divine design. This pair of red silk shoes featuring appropriately low red heels is said to be papal."
14 of 18
Photo: Ron Wood, courtesy of the Bata Shoe Museum (Toronto).
American, mid-20th century
"The heeled biker boot, or engineer’s boot, became popular with bikers after World War II. Groups of young veterans began to gather together drawn by their mutual love of motorcycles and by the late 1940s biker clubs were being established throughout North America. The biker offered an updated version of the cowboy and his sartorial codes, and likewise, spoke to unfettered freedom."
15 of 18
Photo: Ron Wood, courtesy of the Bata Shoe Museum (Toronto).
English, 1760-1780
"Despite the loss of the high heel in men’s fashion in the 18th century, low-heeled shoes of brocaded silk ornamented with glittering buckles or secured with large bows continued to be acceptable for court dress. The occasional man’s heel even continued to be highlighted by a flash of colour, such as this shoe which features a pink leather-covered heel."
16 of 18
Photo: Ron Wood, courtesy of the Bata Shoe Museum (Toronto).
American, 2014
"Although men have worn heels over the last 400 years, none of these fashionable heels were inspired by women’s fashion. For men attempting to dress femininely, however, the stiletto is ideal. This pair of size 16 heels is big enough to allow a man to step into a woman’s shoes."
17 of 18
Photo: Ron Wood, courtesy of the Bata Shoe Museum (Toronto).
French or English, mid-17th century
"This small shoe dates to the middle of the 17th century and was most likely made for a well-to-do boy. The fact that the wearer was male is suggested by the shape and type of heel. Stacked leather ‘polony’ heels were popular on men’s footwear at this time. That the child was well off is indicated by the height of the heel, its marked impracticality helped to declare the wearer’s privilege. The heel is also painted red, in keeping with the fashion of the day."
18 of 18
Photo: Ron Wood, courtesy of the Bata Shoe Museum (Toronto).
American, Tony Lama, late 20th century
"From dime novels and Wild West shows to Hollywood Westerns, the high-heeled cowboy symbolized unfettered freedom and self-
reliance in the 20th century. Although 19th century cowboys first splurged on ostentatious cowboy boots after reaching the railheads at the end of a long cattle drive, it took Hollywood and Dude Ranches for the cowboy boot, with its pointy toe and low slung heel, to finally take shape. This pair of Tony Lama boots reflects the fashion for finery, from the use of lizard skin at the toe to the high stacked leather heel."

Captions courtesy of the Bata Shoe Museum (Toronto), edited for length and clarity.
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