High-heel, over-the-knee boots seem to be back in fashion. But you are highly unlikely to see a man wearing them – that is, unless you go to the new Broadway musical, Kinky Boots.
Ironically, three hundred years ago it would be equally scandalous for a woman to be seen wearing high-heel boots. Unless you were a Russian Empress, who didn’t have anything to lose after she led a coup-d’etat against her husband, deposed him, and (most probably) had him murdered.
High-heel boots, however, were a relatively new fashion in the early modern Europe (‘early modern’ refers roughly to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries). During the Middle Ages and Renaissance well-dressed men wore low-heeled shoes and boots (although they sometimes made up for this deficiency by wearing shoes with extravagantly long toes, called poulaines).
What was worse, they even made armored boots with long, pointy tips.
Now there are all kinds of problems with wearing long, pointy and heal-less shoes, when you ride a horse. And, if you want to get anywhere while wearing this suit of armor, which probably doubled the weight of the guy it protected (especially when you add a sword and a shield), you have to ride.
To see why such shoes are a poor design, consider the beautiful functionality of a cowboy boot, the result of 1500 years of cumulative cultural evolution.
The starting point of this evolution was the invention the stirrup, probably by the Mongolian nomadic people called Xianbei around 300 AD. This was such a useful invention that by the sixth century it spread through all of Eurasia, from Japan to Europe. By providing the rider with unprecedented stability, the stirrup made heavy cavalry (actually, any kind of cavalry) much more effective. Some historians even argued that the stirrup gave rise to feudalism in medieval Europe, and something very similar in Japan (take this with a grain of salt).
The problem with the stirrup is that when you fall off the horse (and if you ride horses a lot, especially under the chaotic conditions of war, you will inevitably do so once in a while), there is a danger of your foot being caught in the stirrup. Countless riders have been dragged to their deaths by panicking horses.
And here is where a properly designed stirrup/boot combination comes in. An iron stirrup with large enough opening for the boot allows you to kick it off as you fall. A high heel, on the other hand, gives you the stability by preventing the foot from slipping through the stirrup. It helps to have a very slick, slippery sole for ease of foot extraction in case of mishap.
High heels and slippery soles make for rather uncomfortable walking (I would not recommend wearing true cowboy boots in New England’s winter!). But for riding it’s just right.
What is interesting is that it took a lot of time for the Europeans to catch on to the utility of high heels. In fact, according to a recent BBC article, Europeans never figured it out on their own – this invention came to Europe from Iran.
The fashion for high heels went all the way to the top.
In the early-modern Europe high-heeled footwear also served an important function of distinguishing the nobility from the peasants. Then came the Age of Revolutions (from the French Revolution of 1789 to the Paris Commune of 1870), which introduced a new era that stressed equality and blurred class lines. At the same time, the horses gradually lost their function as the means of land transport, being replaced by railroads and the automobile. And so high heels lost their functionality, and became just a fashion fad. Or nostalgia.