High-Heeled Shoes Definition - Definitions for the Clothing & Footwear Industry

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High-heeled shoes are shoes which raise the heel of the wearer's foot significantly higher than the toes. When both the heel and the toes are raised, as in a platform shoe, it is generally not considered to be a "high-heel." High-heels come in a wide variety of styles, and the heels are found in many different shapes, including stiletto, block, tapered, blade, and wedge.

red high heel pump

High-heels today

Today, high-heels are typically worn in public only by women, who may wear high-heels at work or on formal occasions. High-heels have seen significant controversy in the medical field lately, with many podiatrists seeing patients whose severe foot problems have been caused almost exclusively by high-heel wear.

Today's high-heels, regardless of the heel's shape, are generally limited to women's footwear. Some men's footwear, such as cowboy boots and shoes with a Cuban heel are considered by some to be a high-heel, even though neither tops 3" in the heel. What height constitutes a "high-heel" has long been a point of contention between those who wear very high-heels and those who wear lower heels. Most high-heeled shoes have heels between 2" and 3". Less popular are shoes with higher heels, such as those above 4". Extremely high-heeled shoes, such as those higher than 5", are effectively worn only for display, and typically for the enjoyment of shoe fetishists and/or the wearer.

There are many reasons why women desire to wear heels, including:

  • the change in angle of the foot with respect to the lower leg becomes elongated, and accentuates the appearance of calves
  • they make the woman appear taller (which may be considered by the wearer to be either an advantage or a disadvantage)
  • one's legs look longer, which some may consider sensuous
  • the change in gait and posture thrusts the buttocks backwards, and causes the hips to sway more which some find sexually attractive
  • many heels, particularly sandals, make the sole of the foot visible.
  • stiletto heels appear to some as a phallic symbol

However, many women shun these shoes because:

  • high-heels become painful to wear, particularly for long periods
  • they shorten the woman's stride, thus restricting free movement
  • they render the woman unable to run, and hence more vulnerable
  • they damage the woman's feet and tendons when worn over long periods (see below)
  • progressively higher heels are progressively riskier and more difficult to walk in; tripping is much more likely, and the risk of damage to the woman's ankles, toes, and feet, both short-term and long-term, is similarly increased.

As a result of these conflicting factors, women who wear high heels have a love/hate relationship with their shoes. A small proportion of women seem to be obsessed with high-heels, owning many pairs. Imelda Marcos, for example, was famous for her vast collection. Second-wave feminism considered high-heeled shoes a tool of female oppression, constraining a woman's movements and behavior as much as possible; however, third-wave "sex-positive" feminism supports a person's choice to wear high heels for pleasure. Throughout the last sixty years, high-heels have fallen in and out of favor several times, most notably in the late 90s, when lower heels and even flats predominated. Lower heels were preferred during the late 60s and early 70s, as well, but higher heels returned in the late 80s and early 90s. The shape of the heel has vacillated back and forth between block (70s), tapered (90s), and stiletto (50s, 80s, and post-2000).


The heel of high-heels can damage floors. This can be prevented through the use of a heel protector, also called a heel cover, heel guard, or heel tap. This is a small piece which fits over the heel and prevents scratching of the floor. Heel protectors are widely used in ballroom dancing.

History of the high-heeled shoe

As early as the late fifteenth century, horsemen grew tired of their feet slipping out of their stirrups, which were little more than loops of leather hung from the saddle. As the soft stirrup gave way to the hard stirrup, for reasons of quicker mounting and dismounting during battle, an additional problem was encountered in that the hard stirrup was much more tiring and damaging to the rider's feet during longer rides.

The obvious solution was to design a leather shoe with a thicker sole that supported the rider's weight, distributing the pressure from the stirrups over more of the bottom of the rider's feet. However this failed to solve the problem of the rider's feet slipping forward in the stirrups, often with comical, if not tragic results.

Cobblers had been adding thin, flat heels to shoes by this time, as a pair of leather shoes was very expensive. Both soles and heels were developed to protect the owner's comfort and investment by increasing the long-term durability of the shoe and distributing uneven pressures from rough terrain more evenly over the owners' feet.

Riders and cobblers worked together to develop the "rider's heel," with a height of approximately 1-1/2", which appeared around 1500. The leading edge was canted forward to help grip the stirrup, and the trailing edge was canted forward to prevent the elongated heel from catching on underbrush or rock while backing up, such as in on-foot combat. These design features are still in use today in riding boots, primarily on both men and women's cowboy boots.

The simple riding heel gave way to a more stylized heel over its first three decades. During this time military uniforms became more stylized, particularly among the nobility, who equated style with social status. Beginning with the French, heel heights among men crept up, often becoming higher and thinner, until they were no longer useful while riding, but were relegated to "court-only" wear. By the 1600s men's heels were commonly between three and four inches in height.

In 1533, more than three decades after the male French nobility began wearing heels, the diminutive wife of the Duke of Orleans, Catherine de Medici, commissioned a cobbler to fashion her a pair of heels, both for fashion, and to increase her stature. This was the first written record of the high-heeled shoe.

It was invented due to military necessity. High-heeled fashion quickly caught on with the fashion-conscious men and women of the French court, and spread to other pockets of nobility in other countries. Both men and women continued wearing heels as a matter of noble fashion throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

When the French Revolution drew near, in the late 1700s, the practice of wearing heels drew to a close, as the term "well-heeled" had became synonymous with opulent wealth, and could incur the ire of the public at large.

Throughout most of the 1800s, flats and sandals were the normative style for both sexes, but the heel resurfaced in fashion during the late 1800's, almost exclusively among women. Since the early 1900s, high-heel design has run the gamut of styles. While today's fashions favor pointed toes, most styles that have appeared over the last century remain available in one form or another, along with a plethora of newer styles.

Foot and tendon problems

High-heeled shoes cant the foot forward and down while bending the toes up. The more that the feet are forced into this unnatural position, the more it will cause the Achilles tendon to shorten. This will cause problems when the wearer chooses lower heels, flat-soled shoes, or to walk barefoot. When the foot cants forward, a disproportionately greater amount of the wearer's weight is transferred to the ball of the foot, increasing the likelihood of damage to the underlying soft tissue which supports the foot. In many shoes, style dictates function, either compressing the toes, or forcing them together, which results in blisters, corns, hammer-toes, bunions, and many other medical conditions, most of which are permanent, and will require surgery to alleviate the pain.

The best solution to avoid these problems is to avoid heels altogether. If that is not possible, then the wearer should ensure they are wearing high-heels no more than half the time, and that they are spending at least a third of the time on their feet either barefoot, in supportive flat-soled shoes, or in good running/walking/cross-training shoes. Saving high heels for rare occasions is best for the overall health of the feet.

One of the most critical problems with high-heels is with the design and construction of the toebox. Improper construction here wreaks the most damage and long-term pain on the foot. Narrow toe boxes force the toes together. Several celebrities, such as Victoria Beckham, have come to the point where surgery is needed to recover from the damage caused by wearing high-heels too often. Ensuring room exists for the toes to assume a normal position and spending sufficient time out of high-heels allows the body to repair any damage caused by high-heels, thereby recovering to a sufficiently healthy point where high-heel wear remains an option, rather than a debilitating practice. Unfortunately, the most common design trend today is towards the extremely pointed toe.

Block heels do not necessarily offer more stability, and any raised heel with too large a width, such as blade and block heels, induces unhealthy side-to-side torques to the ankle every step. Heels which strike the ground too far after of the ankle over-torque the ankle forward, producing extreme stress on the ankle, and creating additional impact on the ball of the foot, both of which are highly likely to cause damage to the feet. Thus, the best design for a high-heel is one with a narrower width, where the heel is closer to the front, more solidly under the ankle, where the toe box provides room enough for the toes, and where forward movement of the foot in the shoe is kept in check by material snug across the instep, rather than by toes jamming together in the toe box. Naturally, this rules out most pumps, but boots, particularly lace-ups with a round toe box and forward heel, are surprisingly supportive.

Interestingly enough, despite the medical issues surrounding high-heel wear, a few podiatrists recommend a well-constructed low heel of no more than two inches for their patients with flat feet. It appears the moderate heel improves the angle of contact between the metatarsals and the horizontal plane, thereby more closely approximating the angle and resulting weight distribution of a normally-arched foot. The angle for high-arched feet, however, is already exaggerated, and the wear of heels by those with high arches can be particularly problematic for the metatarsal phalangeal joint.

Regardless of fashions, it's important to note that high heels do cause cumulative damage to the feet. Many report back pain and problems with spinal alignment, from the abnormal posture that high heels induce.

Men and heels

Since the late 1700s, men's shoes have had primarily low heels. The two exceptions are cowboy boots, which continue to sport a taller riding heel, and a brief resurgence in higher-heeled shoes for men in the 1970s.

While high-heels are marketed almost exclusively to women, a small percentage of men have worn, and continue to wear heels for various reasons, including personal preference, medical reasons, gender identity issues, and fetish roles. Although the idea of men wearing heels certainly isn't new, it is unusual in modern times, and as a result, some pockets of society consider it deviant. Whether it meets DSM-IV criteria for deviancy or not, however, depends entirely on one's reason behind wearing heels, and many people, including psychologists, don't consider it deviant at all, simply due to the fact that gender-specific clothing styles are rapidly disappearing. Furthermore, they realize men invented heels and wore them for more than 200 years before fashions changed. Today, most psychologists simply consider it a fashion choice, as do the men who wear heels. The men who do wear heels in public report very little resistance, and and some report their choice of fashion is met with a surprising amount of appreciation and encouragement.

Heel wear among men is especially prevalent among rock stars, which has seen many performers wearing heels, both on and off the stage since the late 1960s, beginning with the Beatles, who wore shoes with a higher heel.

Over the last decade, the Internet has brought together many men who consider the wearing of heels, even skirts, and other forms of clothing considered by Westerners as merely the continuation of what men have been doing for hundreds of years with heels, and tens of thousands of years with skirts and other fashions. It's a well-known fact that more than a third of all men worldwide still wear skirts on a regular basis, but this is largely lost on the somewhat insulated Western fashion culture. While the wearing of heels by men in public is still rare, it's a continually growing phenomenon, and one that appears to be accelerating.

The practice of men wearing heels continues to grow throughout Westernized countries including the US and Europe, and to a lesser extent in various pockets of Asia. This trend has not been lost on fashion designers, who have occasionally featured men wearing heels on the runways since the mid 1990s. Recent changes by shoe manufacturers, including marketing more masculine styles and heels with significantly larger sizes to accommodate men, appears to underscore this trend, and many of the more masculine high-heeled shoe and boot designs that were only available in sizes up to 11 just two years ago are now available in sizes up to 13, with some in sizes quite larger.

The future of heels

While it is impossible to predict the future of fashion, there are several interesting trends.

First is a return to leather, which for heels makes a lot of sense, since leather excels at providing support while gently remolding and conforming itself to the wearer's foot to provide better distributed support, thereby eliminating hot spots. Furthermore, in addition to providing comfortable, but not excessive levels of warmth, leather breathes fairly well, unlike synthetic coverings.

Second is an increased emphasis on ergonomics. Heels that hurt aren't given much word of mouth, a fact which isn't lost among designers. Heels that combine good looks with proper construction and support are comfortable to wear all day, which to designers, is free advertising. Combined with the fact that consumers are more discriminating with respect to good fit in the store, it's easy to see why ergonomics is playing an increasing role. Some of the more recent shoes and boots have been designed with built-in gel inserts to support the ball of the foot and the heel, and are quite comfortable to wear for extended periods of time.

Third is the use of mixed materials. Cuts including both smooth and suede leathers, as well as natural and synthetic leathers, even fabric in some areas, is becoming more common. This trend uses the best textile for any given area, capitalizing on that textile's strength, and minimizing its weakness. Recent examples include the use of tough rubber non-skid soles and heel-tips, gel inserts for cushioned comfort, leather toe boxes and uppers, synthetic fabric linings and padding to keep moisture away from the foot, stretch synthetic leather insteps to keep the foot firm against the footbed, and plastic zippers. Each technology capitalizes on it's strengths, and reduces the weaknesses.

Learn more about shoes.

See also

Stiletto heels

Kitten heels

Footwear Definition
Footwear & Shoe Industry Definitions
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