Hyacinthe Rigaud, Portrait of Louis XIVWikimedia Commons

What could be more feminine than the high heel? What could be more ladylike than the way a pair of stilettos or pumps or even wedges can lengthen the leg and swagger the hips and add an element of danger to the ground beneath one’s feet? What other accessory can so neatly evoke the demands made of women as they walk the world every day: to be beautiful, to be amenable, to navigate risk, to bear pain?

But heels, too, both as objects and as symbols, are relative propositions. Even that quintessentially feminine accessory is not quintessentially feminine at all. As Stuart Weitzman, the shoe designer—and the curator of the New-York Historical Society’s exhibit Walk This Way: Footwear From the Stuart Weitzman Collection of Historic Shoes—reminded at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic: It used to be men who wore heels.

Recall those infamous portraits of Louis XIV, swathed in the physical rewards of a culture that believed in the divine right of kings, elevated not only by luck, but also by generously stacked heels. They were heels that, as Weitzman suggested, were symbols not only of status—the king stipulated that no heel could be higher than the one that he wore, and that only members of his court could paint their own heels the king’s signature red—but also of gender. Heels, in Europe in the 18th century, given their origins in the riding of horses and the cavalric waging of war, were for a long time the ultimate dudely accessory.

It wasn’t until the time of the French revolution, the historian Elizabeth Semmelhack argues, that heels’ roles as gender markers and as status symbols collided. On the one hand, France’s post-revolution society emphasized—or, at least, it told itself it emphasized—practicality and reason, and heels, while they are many things, are decidedly impractical. (As a satirical poem from the time advised, “Mount on French heels when you go to the ball— / ’Tis the fashion to totter and show you can fall.”) By the time Napoleon crowned himself emperor in 1804, the new ruler made a point of wearing flats.

And so heels were relegated to the realm of the impractical, the irrational, the superficial … which is to say, to the realm of the traditionally feminine. And there, ever since, they have remained.

Americans live now in a time of anxiety about masculinity and femininity, about the intersections of sex and gender and biology and culture, about the ways a sense of self is shaped—and is, at the same time, unreachable—by the workings of society. The evolution of heels is a small reminder, though, of how many of the things that are simply assumed to be true about gender are in fact extremely contingent. Heels were quintessentially masculine, until they were quintessentially feminine. Shoes in general, Stuart Weitzman noted, are about so much more than function: They are art. They are culture. They are quotidian choices. And heels in particular simultaneously raise up their wearers and, by virtue of their heights, hold them back as they move through the world. It’s worth remembering, at this time of questionable truths, that, not too long ago, it was men who were made to walk within that paradox.

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