The Scarlet Heel – a brief history of red high heels

Shoe's over time

Shoe's over time

Nothing makes a statement like red and throughout history red has been used as a colour to mark social status and wealth. In the wake of Christian Louboutin’s recent litigious action, we examine the history behind the scarlet heel, specifically in France during the 16th and 17th century, and look at where high heels originated.

High heels are not an invention of the 20th century, their use can be traced back as early as 3500 BC in Ancient Egypt where murals depict both men and women of the upper classes wearing heels. Later in Ancient Greece we see some of the earliest versions of the wedge: high cork or wooden sandals called kothorni with the height varying according to social status. These shoes were not just for ornamental purposes, they also had a practical purpose – avoiding the mud and rubbish in the streets. During the middle ages the wooden part of the wedge was transformed and became a detachable piece so as to preserve the expensive shoe which was attached to the top. This lead to the creation of Chopines, the first platform shoes, in Turkey in 1400 (pictured). These could be up to 7-8 inches high and very restrictive, which meant that women needed help to walk in them. They are also reminiscent of the 70s platforms, better known as ankle breakers.

It was around 1533 that the closest style of high heels as we know them today was created. They were introduced into the French Court at Versailles by Catherine Medici, who later became Queen. She was less than 5 feet tall and wanted to make an impression on the French Court, so she wore shoes with a 2 inch heel. They were an instant success and the use of the high heel spread throughout Europe. The “Louis heel”, as they came to be known, reached as much as 5 inches but no one was allowed to be higher than the King. Louis XIV began decorating his shoes with intricate detail, even depicting battle scenes on the heels. Materials such as lace, silk, satin and brocade were used and decorations like buckles and rosettes were added to the toes. The exact date of when the first red heel was seen is unclear, however Louis XIV was painted wearing them and an edict was issued in 1673 declaring only nobility could wear the coveted colour.

According to historian Philip Mansel the colour red was chosen to “demonstrate that the nobles did not dirty their shoes”. The use of red is also synonymous with blood and the heels are also thought to have shown that the nobility “were always ready to crush the enemies of the State at their feet.” A slightly different interpretation of the colour red to Louboutin, who thought that red was “flirtatious” and “passionate”.

The use of red was not restricted to France either; England, Germany, Austria and other empires began using red. The trend continued until the French Revolution when it was outlawed, along with the high heel in general. Marie Antoinette (who had around 500 pairs of shoes), is rumoured to have gone to the guillotine wearing 2 inch heels.

Perhaps the red heel and specifically the red sole for Louboutin is part of a French cultural tradition generally rather than belonging to Louboutin alone. However the context for use of red is different, Louboutin sees red as passionate and flirtatious and was inspired by women’s’ red nail polish – a little different to Louis XIV’s vision of the blood of his enemies.

What is still the same, even after 300 years, is that red seems to equal privilege. When you wear a pair of red soled heels you still feel like royalty.


By Katie Hill.

Katie Hill loves writing about fashion from all over the world. A self-confessed shopaholic, she is always seeking out the lastest news and newest trends.

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  • indieswebs says:

    An informative blog I found. It’s all-rounding information giving blog. But Katie, I am also interested to know more in this direction like which types of heels are more suitable with which type of figure, dress etc. And also it will be pleasant to know about the health while considering heels.

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