The Short Queen Who Needed High Heels: The Strange Origins Of Our Favorite Accessory
March 25, 2018|María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards
Who would say that ambition would push this Queen to create one of the most iconic shoes in history?
Have you ever wondered when your favorite accessories were invented? I do all the time, and always get amazed at how things we use on a daily basis, and have been around for such a long time, came into the mind of someone needing a practical solution to life. High heels might not sound as the most practical for most (me included), but actually more than coming to exist as a fashion statement, they really were created to bring extremely practical and specific solutions. This is the story of the creative mind you should thank if you love rocking your favorite stilettos.
Heels have been around since ancient times, to be more specific one of the first records of heels in history were already in use in ancient Egypt. However, they weren’t used for aesthetic or fashionable reasons. Actually, butchers where the people who started wearing them since they hated the blood and guts from butchered animals getting inside their sandals, so they added some strange platform to their sandals to keep their feet clean.
More or less with the same idea, during the late Middle Ages, women in Italy (mainly in Venice) would use platforms known as chopines to protecting their shoes and dresses from the waste and mud of the streets. At the same time, for centuries men’s boots included a small heel so that their shoes would remain secured in their horse's stirrups. Having said that, even when heels in the most literal sense of the word were a practical solution for thousands of years, the ones we’re accustomed to were invented during the Renaissance in France by one of the most controversial characters in history.
Ok, we have to be a bit more specific since there were so many controversial characters during this time. I’m talking about Catherine de Medici, the ruthless, Machiavellian Queen famous for her callous plots and cold-blooded murders with poison. For this Queen fashion became a tool to enforce her power. Coming from one of the most influential and dominant families who remained in power over three centuries, she was raised to understand that wealth and power didn’t come only from blood lineage but as a consequence of intelligent strategies by using circumstances in their favor. In that way, from a young age, she was raised with this particular political perspective turning her into a really ambitious woman. So, what role did fashion play in her schemes?
From the moment she was betrothed to Henry II, Dauphin of France, she knew she wanted to play the odds to become the head of the country (a role that Pope Clement VII, Catherine’s relative, supported for the benefit of Rome). Knowing that her future husband was deeply in love with Diane de Poitiers, a tall and beautiful courtier with whom he had a long affair, Catherine who was really short for the standards (it’s said she was less than five feet), knew she needed to do her best to captivate her future husband and make herself noticeable in the French court. It’s said that at her wedding she wore the most extraordinary and opulent dress one could imagine, filled with embroidered jewels and intricate designs. Enter the precious heels.
According to the story, she wanted to compete with Diane de Poitiers at least when it came to height so she had a Florentine shoemaker fashion a pair of shoes to increase her stature. Now, platforms were already in use in Italy as we talked but these were extremely uncomfortable and besides that women couldn’t walk on their own while wearing them. These weren’t an option for Catherine who wanted to walk gracefully to the altar, so she came with the idea of adding to regular shoes a platform on the back while leaving the front flat for stability and comfort.
Not long before, other royals started using this new shoes, one being Queen Mary Tudor, and even men wore them. Soon, they became symbols of wealth and power, that even gave them a more erect and fancy posture. Heels were so popular among aristocrats and nobility that just one century after, the famous King Louis XIV decreed that only nobility could wear heels as long as they weren’t as tall as his. And so, throughout history, these shoes have acquired new meanings and symbolism.
Catherine’s inventiveness to create an image of herself was her means to power and respect. This is something she embraced throughout her life by smartly overturning any plot and scheme threatening to remove her from power (she was basically behind the political moves of her three sons when they took the crown). So, although her plans of captivating her husband didn’t work as she expected (their marriage remained overshadowed by Diane), she ended up creating one of the most popular shoes in history, which might be her greatest legacy.
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