On a recent browse through a Toronto vintage shop, I came across a pair of fine, pointy Brazilian leather boots with steep Cuban heels. They fit me perfectly - and also hoisted me about four centimetres higher than I normally stand in shoes.
I had hardly ever seen men's footwear with heels like these. The elegant high pumps worn by Louis XIV in a famous portrait came to mind, along with a type of boots I encountered often while growing up in Alberta. Yes, I mean cowboy boots, with which these Brazilians had a few features in common, including the shape of the toe and the side decoration (in braided leather, not stitching). But these were shorter, sleeker and more urban-looking than cowboy boots, and the all-leather heel was about a centimetre higher.
I wore the boots around the store for a quarter-hour, to see whether my feet and male hetero psyche could handle them. I decided that if heels like these were good enough for bull riders and absolute monarchs, they were good enough for me.
For my first outing, I wore them to the opera, Louis' favourite art form. As I walked down my block to catch a streetcar to the Four Seasons Centre, I realized that I would have to shorten my long stride a bit. It was also clear that if the car came into view before I reached the stop, I would not be running to meet it.
I'm six feet tall in bare feet, so I'm accustomed to standing higher than most people. On that crowded streetcar, however, I towered over everyone. The Louis aspect of the boots was instantly clear to me: Height is power, and more height is better. And yet for some reason, we men gave up this easy route to primitive dominance, letting the high heel become feminized.
The sidewalks outside were filled with women continuing that process, in footwear much flimsier than mine. I had been in my boots for maybe half an hour and already I was filled with wonder that so many women wore higher, narrower heels all day long.
Four centuries ago, European men wore high heels to demonstrate virility. Louis' brother Philippe, a noted warrior, went into battle wearing "such high-heeled shoes that it seemed impossible he could remain upright," clothing historian Philip Mansel wrote in Dressed to Rule: Royal and Court Costume from Louis XIV to Elizabeth II. But Philippe was in part only continuing a practical military fondness for heels that could keep feet firmly in stirrups.
Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, says that the high equestrian heel migrated to Europe from Persia in the late 16th century. It quickly became a status item that spread to less utilitarian footwear, reaching its apex (in every sense) under the Sun King, a tall man who wouldn't permit anyone to wear heels higher than his.
Within two decades of Louis' death in 1715, however, the high heel had vanished from European men's fashion, never to return. Men's clothing became more sombre, more connected to supposed utility - the same kind of utility that recommended high-heeled boots to the hard-riding cowboys who swarmed the North American plains in the mid-1900s.
My boots were obviously city cousins of that rough footwear. They wouldn't see such rugged use, although the traffic around my streetcar was about to put them to a test I hadn't foreseen. We weren't moving; nobody was. The whole downtown area was jammed thanks to a big arena event. I'd never make the opera unless I got out and walked, much quicker than I had thought possible. After a block or so of that, I realized that I'd miss the curtain unless I really picked up speed. So I ran, careening down the crowded sidewalk like a man on stilts, expecting to sprain an ankle at every step.
I got to the show just as ushers were closing the theatre doors. The lights went down, and my relieved feet began to throb in an entirely new way. The bones in those extremities seemed to have been redistributed, perhaps forever.
I saw several people I knew after the show, but no one mentioned my new elevation. When I later recounted my boot-race experience to my date for the occasion, she said she hadn't noticed I was wearing heels higher than the one-inch standard.
Of course, we wear what we wear for the experience of wearing it, not just to be seen. "Fashion has to do with ideas," Coco Chanel said, and I don't own any piece of clothing more loaded with ideas that my Brazilian boots. The feminist writer Susan Brownmiller referred to women's high heels as a "stylish hindrance that no man in his right mind would put up with." Call me crazy, but my high heels are just too interesting to leave at home.