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A heel is the projection at the back of a shoe which rests below the heel bone. The shoe heel is used to improve the balance of the shoe, increase the height of the wearer, alter posture or other decorative purposes. Sometimes raised, the high heel is common to a form of shoe often worn by women, but sometimes by men too. See also stiletto heel.
High heels are not a modern invention. Rather, they enjoy a rich and varied history, for both men as well as women. Controversy exists over when high heels were first invented, but the consensus is that heels were worn by both men and women throughout the world for many centuries and for a variety of reasons.
It has been commonly stated that the first instance of the wear of high heels involved the 1533 marriage between Catherine de' Medici with the Duke of Orleans. She wore heels made in Florence for her wedding, and as a result, Italian high heels became the norm for ladies of the Duke's court in France. Unfortunately, this reference may be apocryphal, as the development of heels did not begin to come about until the late 1580s, based on iconographic evidence and extant pieces.
Around 1660, a shoemaker named Nicholas Lestage designed high heeled shoes for Louis XIV. Some were more than four inches (ten cm), and most were decorated in various battle scenes. The resulting high "Louis heels" subsequently became fashionable for ladies. Today the term is used to refer to heels with a concave curve and outward taper at the bottom similar to those worn by Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV's mistress. (They are also sometimes called "Pompadour heels".)
The late 18th-Century trend toward lower heels had much to do with the French Revolution. During the revolution, high heels became associated with opulence. Since people wished to avoid the appearance of wealth, heels were largely eliminated from the common market for both men and women. In the wake of the French Revolution heels become lower than at any time in the 18th century.
Although high-heeled shoes or boots have more often been worn by women, in various times and places they have been standard features of men's footwear too, either for practical reasons or as fashionable items.
Mongolian horsemen were among the first to use heels as means to keep their feet from sliding out of their stirrups. It is also well known that Egyptian butchers wore high heels so they would not step directly in offal. Pharaohs and nobles in Ancient Egypt would wear high heels to show power and for ceremonial purposes.
The Romans, both men and women, wore cothurns, or sandals with platform heels; these were intended to lift the wearers above mud and garbage in the streets. Geta, which are based on a similar concept, are still used in Japan today.
American cowboy boots, first developed in the 19th century and still popular today in some parts of the United States, have high underslung heels to keep a rider's foot from sliding through the stirrup.
High-heeled platform shoes were a widely popular form of men's footwear during the 1970s.