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While it may seem like every season brings a new breed of high heels—block-heel mules, teetering satin pumps, toothpick-thin stilettos—the history of heel heights can be traced back to at least the 15th century, when Persian men wore them on horseback, enabling them to get a better footing on the stirrups.
They came in and out of fashion throughout the intervening decades, worn by both men and women, and took a wide variety of forms (some, like the Venetian chopines, towering overshoes that let women clomp through muddy streets without dirtying their dresses, barely recognizable as heels at all). Even in the past century, though, heels have come a long way, advancing from the narrow lace-up boots of the Edwardian era to the avant-garde creations we see on the runway today.
Below, take a trip back through time with nine of the most important moments in recent high-heel history.
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One of the most prolific footwear designers of the mid 20th century, Salvatore Ferragamo held many patents, and among the most important were the cork wedges, born out of necessity when economic sanctions in the lead-up to World War II limited the amount of German steel he could obtain to create arch support in his shoes. Eighty years later, cork soles are still seen on footwear short and tall.
Dorothy's Ruby Slippers
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While it's hard to imagine the historic shoes from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz being rendered in any color other than ruby red, in the original book, they were actually silver. We all have advances in Technicolor—and the yellow brick road—to thank for the brilliant hue of the sequined pumps, which have inspired countless tributes in the years since.
Roger Vivier's Dior Heels
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At the same time that Dior's New Look silhouette was captivating fashionable women in the post-WWII years, Roger Vivier's shoe designs for the house were giving them something appropriately feminine and elegant to put on their feet. During the '50s, he introduced several novel—and, it would turn out, extremely influential—heel styles, including stilettos and chocs, which curved inward toward the ball of the foot.
Marilyn Monroe's Ferragamo Pumps
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Monroe was a legendary supporter of Ferragamo, and clearly, the feeling was mutual, since he designed 40 pairs of shoes personally for her. As Hollywood lore has it, her signature wiggle was owed in part to her habit of having one heel made half an inch shorter than the other (though this remains unproven).
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The subject of plenty of parental hand-wringing during the '70s, platform heels soared as high as eight inches and were suited for all occasions, whether you chose clog-like styles with chunky wooden soles or went with flashy, embellished metallics for disco nights. Per the Bata Shoe Museum's current exhibition, Standing Tall, men typically favored styles with distinct heels, as their solid, blocky counterparts were historically considered more feminine (remember those chopines?).
According to Rachelle Bergstein's footwear history Women from the Ankle Down, Clueless's costume designer, Mona May, chose Mary Janes as the go-to footwear for the movie's lead characters as "a quintessentially youthful shoe"—one they could wear with miniskirts and, yes, even that Calvin Klein dress and still look girlish, since the heels weren't overly high or narrow.
Carrie Bradshaw's Manolos
She may not have become the old woman who lived in her shoes—per her prediction after dropping $40K on her collection—but Sarah Jessica Parker's Sex and the City" character is still shaping footwear trends to this day. Her particular affection for Manolo Blahniks is well documented, from the season-three mugging incident to Mr. Big's proposal with a satin Hangisi pump, a style that 2017 brides-to-be are still flocking to.
Lady Gaga's Heel-less Wonders
During the height of Gaga's Fame Monster days, when meat dresses and face pearls were par for the sartorial course, the pop star rarely stepped out in anything other than gravity-defying, heel-less feats of architecture standing at nine or so inches tall, often by designer Noritaka Tatehana or the late Alexander McQueen. While the trend didn't quite go mass (treacherous as it was), it did inspire many lower-priced copycats and push footwear design further outside the box.
Christian Louboutin's Nudes
Okay, so it's a little soon to be calling this one because they were just introduced in 2013, but Louboutin's extended range of nude heels—covering not just beige, but seven different skin-tone shades—has already been groundbreaking enough to make the cut. The designer's skyscraper pumps are among the most recognizable footwear of the past 25 years (the signature red sole was the product of a flash of inspiration and an assistant's nail-polish bottle), and the move toward inclusivity has already inspired other brands to do the same.
Shop High Heels:
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We haven't wanted a pair of Mary Janes this badly since we were in middle school and all the cool girls had jellies on their feet.
A step above your basic black sandals.
Fun fact: Roger Vivier was the first designer to use transparent plastic in a shoe design—all the way back in 1945. (We think these modern strappy sandals are pretty cool too.)
A less expected way to wear summer's ruffle trend.
A little old, a little new, 100% cool.