The Birth of the Stiletto

The birth of the stiletto in the fifties marked a turning point in the history of fashion, feminism and culture. Defined by a thin stiletto heel of only 0.9 inches in circumference, the stiletto heel can be any height, but is often associated with a lift of 3, 4, 5 or more inches.

Popular Heels

stiletto heels

Without it, the pages of Vogue magazine and the Sex and the City sets would have seemed quite, well, pedestrian. The more floral designs of revered shoe designers Manolo Blahnik and Christian Louboutin may never have done so. And the incessant speculation about the innate human desire for stiletto heels probably never would have begun.

What is often overlooked is that the stiletto was also a turning point in the history of materials science, that beautiful and applied stepson of the master of physics and engineering. Whether André Perugia, Roger Vivier or Salvatore Ferragamo, experts agree that this particular heel, named after an Italian dagger with which he shares his nervous shape, could never have been made without desire, creativity and steel. However, no one knows where the battered heel is headed.

“I have spent the last 18 years trying to unravel this whole story,” says Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum and author of several books on shoes. The Bata, located in the heart of downtown Toronto, was designed by her architect to look like a shoe box.

Heel collection of stiletto shoes

stiletto heels

Her collection, the largest of its kind in the world, includes more than 13,000 shoes and related items. There is an exact replica of Otzi the Iceman’s shoe, which looks like a bird’s nest and is as big as a dining plate; 19th century clogs that squeak like chestnuts and look more like a piece of Sweeney Todd’s game than a common agricultural tool; and boots from the Vietnam War era designed with a second sole to leave the impression of enemy troops covering the tracks of an American.

High heels (of which stiletto heels are a very high and ultra-thin subcategory) were originally worn by men. The lift anchored the soldiers better to their noble steeds and, according to Semmelhack, allowed them to wield heavier weapons. Over time the style has spread, probably through commercial and political networks. In the mid 1500s, heels supported the Dutch and English.

In the Venetian courts, rich women wore a particularly precarious platform called chopine in 1500. It often required the help of an assistant to balance it. But the attraction of heels among women probably began at the beginning of the 17th century, when fashionable European women began to wear men’s clothes widely, according to Semmelhack.

Heels For Men Too

stiletto heels

Heels were a natural facet of this gender-bending fashion, with men and women wearing elegant heels at the same time. Consequently, the shape of the heel became the distinctive factor in the 17th century. Men wore wide, blocked heels. And women wore thinner, narrower heels.

In the 18th century, men had completely given up being “wealthy”. Once fashionable shoes were seen as contrary to the principles of the Enlightenment, such as rationality and the notion of equality (between free white men), according to Semmelhack. With the exception of some male outliers such as the cowboy boot, heels came to be seen as solid and exclusively feminine, a sensibility that still persists to a large extent today.

Throughout this millennial history, heels have become taller and wilder. But there was a limit to their potential: wood, which was the raw material in shoe production before the Second World War. In the 18th century, shoemakers and lacemakers tried to get by in many ways, largely without success. Semmelhack saw shoes with reinforced stems on the instep, for example, and heels placed near the center of the sole instead of the back. Yet, women often returned heels that had chipped, according to newspaper articles Semmelhack studied.

With only wood to work with, most women at the beginning of the 20th century wore heels that had chipped.