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A mid-17th century ‘polony’ heel. (Photos courtesy of Ron Wood/Bata Shoe Museum)

I happened to be on Yonge Street during a recent Walk a Mile in Her Shoes event, in which hundreds of men stomped down the road in red high heels to raise awareness of sexual violence. Several women near me wearing similar shoes stopped to snap pictures, because how often do you see guys wearing heels?

What is today an uploadable oddity, however, used to be a common sight, and in some places still is. High heels began as a symbol of masculine power, and still look that way when a bull rider in cowboy boots bursts out of a rodeo pen.

The rise and fall of men’s heels is a story of unusual breadth and even some passion, given how the subject scrapes against our notions of masculinity. “Never before have a few inches mattered so much,” says Elizabeth Semmelhack, curator of a compact exhibition at the Bata Shoe Museum called Standing Tall: The Curious History of Men in Heels.

Turn of the 20th century French military heel.

High heels, she explains, were first worn as tools of warfare that became signs of courtly privilege, before being abandoned by “practical” men and taken up by fashionable women. The nationality and period of the first heeled man is uncertain, but Semmelhack has traced the heel to 10th-century Persia, where cavalrymen adoped it as a companion technology to the stirrup. A man in heels was a man more able to ride hard and cut down his enemies.

Those military heels spread north and from east to west, partly through trading relations, partly as an innovation useful during the colonial adventures of the 16th century. Heels benefited from what we now call globalization, and became part of the military industrial complex of the times.

Persian heels were solid blocks covered with leather or fabric, while what the English called Polish or “polony” heels were built or stacked from layers of tough leather. In western Europe, covered heels were worn mainly at court and became associated with elegance, while the stacked heel remained a sign of rugged manliness.

The cultures of action and indolence were sometimes mashed up in one costume. A Van Dyck double portrait from the 17th century shows the aristocratic Stuart brothers wearing lavish silks and lace, but their boots have stacked heels – and indeed, both were warriors who died in battle during the English Civil War.

Louis XIV of France and Gustavus III of Sweden both decreed that high red heels could only be worn at court. Historian Philip Mansel reports that in France to this day, it’s sometime said of an arrogant person, “Il est trés talon rouge.”

The red power heel – worn centuries before Louboutins – was the peak before the decline brought on by revolutions in politics, style and gender construction. Audacious women began cribbing from men’s wardrobes, adopting their coats, hats and heels. When Catherine the Great seized power in a coup in 1762, she pointedly wore an elite officer’s uniform and heeled riding boots.

The English abandoned the heel first, identifying it with effete French ways. The association stuck so firmly that even when 19th-century American range riders wanted tall-heeled boots, they asked for “French heels.” Heels regained their original purpose among Pony Express riders and cowboys, who drove cattle long distances to intersect with the new railway system of shipment and commerce.

Tony Lama cowboy boots, late 20th century.

The “golden age” of cowboy boots, as Semmelhack calls it, happened much later, in the 1940s and ’50s, when nostalgic tales of the open West were all over movie screens and television. An amusing 1950s illustration in the Bata exhibition shows a little urban cowboy and his mother, both in high heels, without a trace of gender ambiguity.

Oddly enough, this period also birthed the stiletto, which refeminized and sexualized the high heel. Heels continued to rise in the 1960s and ’70s as part of a general reaction against blandness in men’s wear, though Semmelhack overstates her case that glam-rock heels only reaffirmed “conventional concepts of masculinity.” That may be true of KISS, but what about the gender amibiguity of glam-era David Bowie and the New York Dolls?

Platform boots by Canadian designer Master John, 1973.

The Bata show also touches on a paradox in the social politics of height, in societies where tall men enjoy well-documented advantages in terms of career advancement and earning power. Ronald Reagan stood even taller in his cowboy boots, which burnished his image as a presidential Marlboro Man. But Nicholas Sarkozy was ridiculed for apparently wearing “lifts” inside his dress shoes. Both got extra height, but only the Frenchman’s heels were seen as a sign of vanity and insecurity.

The real question may not be why high heels have all but disappeared from men’s wear, but why men’s heels persist at all. Many men spend their lives in varieties of flat-soled sporting and casual shoes. It’s even possible to buy a dressy-looking leather brogue with a flat sole. The business-dress Oxford still has a heel, partly from stylistic inertia, but also perhaps because a stacked heel of real leather has become a sign of luxury.

A ‘Beatle’ boot with Cuban heel, owned and worn by John Lennon, 1960s.

Some designers have played with heels for men. J. W. Anderson showed chunky covered platforms in London in 2014. But that kind of footwear probably has no better chance of returning to general use than the huge wigs worn at Louis XIV’s court. “What I’m waiting to see is a very manly pair of stilettos,” says Semmelhack. She could be in for a long wait.

Standing Tall: The Curious History of Men in Heels continues at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto through June 2016.

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