High Heels

You fall over drunk at brunch and blame your Louboutins, or maybe the endless Mimosas you consumed while perched precariously on two 6-inch leather-bound spikes. Little do you know how much you have in common with a 16th Century Spanish prostitute. Or an 18th Century French aristocrat. Turns out we’ve been attempting to party on stilts for centuries. And still, we haven’t learned.

Cork Platformed Spanish Chapins
Cork Platformed Spanish “Chapins” via The Bata Shoe Museum

Sure, looks have diversified, but despite all ergonomic and anatomical reason, high heels, and high shoes generally, remain a staple of the partying and imbibing social uniform (which makes about as much sense as combining casual mid-morning waffle consumption with endless alcohol). And while you might think you have pumps-pimps like Jessica Simpson and straight-up daredevil fashion-freakists like Lady Gaga to thank for your ankle pain, the tradition of hugely impractical footwear goes back much further. In the 16th century, Spanish and Italian prostitutes wore “chopines,” vaulted platform shoes made less for walking than for presentation, the heightened appearance allowing potential clients to observe a lady of the night in all her immobilized glory. It wasn’t long before the chopine style was adopted by the aristocracy (what better way to show your worth than by wearing shoes that basically say “Yo, I don’t have to walk.”)

And that isn’t even the earliest appearance of recreationally illogical female footwear. During the Tang Dynasty—well over 1000 years ago—Chinese “lotus” shoes had already established a cultural tradition of contorting a woman’s feet for fashion, literally breaking and binding the foot to the point of extreme disfigurement. According to legend, the favorite concubine of Prince Li Yu performed a special dance in a six foot high (you read that right, six foot high) platform shoe, “shaped like a lotus flower made of gold.” The dance, and foot-disfiguring shoe style, took off and eventually young girls everywhere were breaking and binding their feet to fit in, literally and figuratively (the practice was only finally outlawed in 1911, more than a millennium later).

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Medical Criticism Of High Heels From An 1887 Issue Of The Audubon magazine
Medical Criticism Of High Heels From An 1887 Issue Of The Audubon magazine

Lotus shoes weren’t all necessary high (we’re pretty sure the six-footer was a special occasion shoe), but they were functionally impractical and incorporated into a culture of entertainment and recreation, the same way heels are basically a must for a lady out on the town. (Interesting note, though: high heels weren’t just the fashion bane of fancy chicks—up until around the mid 17th Century, men and women of a certain status wore basically the same, often high-heeled, shoes. Louis the XIV actually favored red ones). But whoever’s wearing them, why partying in heels persists is a mystery. It’s not like we can’t see the visually obvious impracticality: just think of how illogical it seems when the female lead in an action movie does all her running and jumping and Parkour in heels. Anyone who saw Jurassic World saw Bryce Dallas Howard doing two hours of dinosaur evasion in a pair of nude pumps. If it seems unreasonable to ask someone to wear heels while running from a genetically modified T-Rex, why is it reasonable to expect vaulted, spiky footwear in the context of social drinking?

Chinese shoe for bound foot, 18th century. Musées du château des Rohan, Musée Louise Weiss, Saverne, France
Chinese shoe for bound foot, 18th century. Musées du château des Rohan, Musée Louise Weiss, Saverne, France via Wikimedia Commons

The answer, kind of anticlimactic, is we want to look good. And for many of us, high heels help us look (and feel) good. Except, combining high heels and high-ABV may just do the opposite, thanks in no small part to the assertive (and beauty-blind) yank of gravity. As Dr. Joel S. Buchalter, clinical assistant professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at the Hospital of Joint Diseases, told Consumer Reports, “stepping out to a club or a party in super high heels is just asking for trouble.” Alcohol is like kryptonite for balance and essential motor skills. And your ankles aren’t the only ones at risk (though Buchalter recalled a story of a bride-to-be seriously damaging her ankle a month before her wedding). But beyond damage to the ankle area, including some injuries that surgery can’t fix, Buchalter’s seen an increasing number of injuries to the wrist—and face. Excited though we might be to show off our mind-blowing 20-inch platform boots from James Syiemiong, our faces are generally meant to be the focal point of the evening, and any possible future attraction (let’s face it, marriages based on a mutual love of tall footwear just don’t last).

A Portrait Of Louis XIV and His Family...Note His Bright Red Heels
A Portrait Of Louis XIV and His Family…Note The Sun King’s Bright Red Heels

Despite all of which, boozing in heels persists, and will likely continue to, no matter how many spills we take. High heels seem to be eternally in vogue, and by this point that height boost (whether it’s 3 inches or 6) can feel like an instant confidence boost. Add a high-ABV cocktail and, as Buchalter says, “it creates the perfect storm.”

A storm that’s been raging for centuries, it turns out. At least we can comfort ourselves that we’re not the first to trade practicality—or facial integrity—for a good look. A line from an 18th Century French satirical poem proves that wobbling on heels is proud tradition of partiers come and gone:

Mount on French heels, When you go to the ball –‘Tis the fashion to totter and show you can fall.”