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High heels fit for a King

Inspired by the style of Charles II as seen in the exhibition Charles II: Art & PowerLouise Cooling, Curator of Paintings, discusses how the high heel changed from being used on a functional riding boot to a high-fashion style worn by royalty. 

Origins of the high heel

The high heel originated in the near east where it was worn for centuries as a form of riding footwear. Good horsemanship was essential to the fighting style of Persia (modern day Iran) - when the soldier stood up in his stirrups, the heel helped him to steady his stance so that he could shoot his bow and arrow more effectively. In 1599, Persia's ruler Shah Abbas I, keen to forge links with the courts of Western Europe to help him defeat the Ottoman Empire, sent the first Persian diplomatic mission to Europe, calling at the courts of Russia, Germany and Spain.

Charles II  - closeup of high heeled buckle shoe

The jewelled buckles on these shoes reflect the revival of interest in the Middle East in the later 17th century. ©

High heels as a fashion statement

Following the Shah's diplomatic mission, there was a wave of interest in Persian culture from Western Europe. Persian style shoes were enthusiastically adopted by aristocrats, who sought to give their appearance a virile, masculine edge associated with the heeled shoes of the Persian cavalry.

In the first half of the 17th century, high heeled shoes for men took the form of heeled riding or Cavalier boots as worn by Charles I. As the wearing of heels filtered into the lower ranks of society, the aristocracy responded by dramatically increasing the height of their shoes. High heels were impractical for undertaking manual labour or walking long distances, and therefore announced the privileged status of the wearer. 

Closeup of riding boots worn by Charles I

Mytens, appointed court artist soon after Charles I's accession in 1625, depicted the king's love of fine clothing ©

The popularity of ornate heels 

By the late 17th century Paris had become the centre of European fashion, influenced by the court of Charles II's cousin, Louis XIV. This included the fashion for high - between 2 and 5 inches - wooden heels, trimmed with ornate buckles, rosettes and ribbons to fasten and decorate shoes. High-heeled shoes made of silks, brocades and other expensive fabrics further separated the nobility from working men and women and allowed their status to be visible at all times. 

Red heels were initially popularised at the French court at Versailles.  Red dye was expensive and carried a military overtone. The fashion soon spread overseas - Charles II had spent time at the French court during his 14 year exile and was eager to emulate the opulence he had seen there.  Despite the fact that Charles II was over 6ft (1.8m) tall - Louis XIV was only 5ft 4" (1.62m) - the fashion for high red heels was adopted at the Restoration court.

Ludovick Stuart, 2nd Duke of Lennox and Duke of Richmond wears shoes of patterned white silk or leather, decorated with ornate shoe roses.

Ludovick Stuart, 2nd Duke of Lennox and Duke of Richmond wears shoes of patterned white silk or leather, decorated with ornate shoe roses. ©

Heels as part of the Garter costume

In this detail from the portrait of Charles II by Simon Verelst, on display in Charles II: Art & Power, the king is wearing pale shammy leather shoes with red heels and knots of silver lace and ribbon. Such shoes were part of the sumptuous robes and insignia of the Order of the Garter and were worn by knights of the order on ceremonial occasions from the seventeenth century until the mid-twentieth century, long after the fashion for red heels for men had otherwise died out.

Charles II  - closeup of high heeled ribbon shoe

White shammy leather shoes with red heels, knots of silver lace and ribbon were part of the Garter costume from the mid-17th century. ©

Related exhibition
Charles II: Art & Power

The art of the Restoration