For its 20th anniversary, Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum is showcasing a curious exhibit on the history of men in heels. Vv Magazine stopped by to learn some history behind the gender-defying phenomenon.

Never before have a few inches mattered so much. So reads the cheeky welcome message at the Bata Shoe Museum’s latest exhibition: Standing Tall: The Curious History of Men in Heels.

“I still can’t believe they let me use that,” said senior curator Elizabeth Semmelhack during a tour of the gallery. “But it’s true!”

Set to be unveiled Friday May 8 for the Bata Shoe Museum’s 20th anniversary, the exhibition offers a mind-boggling revelation that the way we see heels — and, in turn, who is wearing them — has little to do with femininity. In fact, the high heel is masculine by birth.

Bata SHoe Museum

Even more surprising: for over a century, heels were the norm for Europe’s stylish man about-town. (Hey GQ, there’s an editorial here.)

Consider this: the first high heels were worn by Western Asian hunters on horseback as a way to loop their shoes into their stirrups, freeing up their arms for a sling-and-arrow. When the heel arrived in Europe, sometime between 1595 and 1600, it was strictly a man’s shoe — and particularly popular amongst royals.

“Men in Europe were happy — happy! — to wear heels in the first 130 years of their use,” Semmelhack explained.

French Or English, mid-17th Century
French Or English, mid-17th Century

So what happened? Well, according to Standing Tall, the men’s heel went out of style with the dawn of the three-piece suit in the 18th century. The outfit was seen as a social equalizer, an idea that was in vogue at the time. Cheeky, colourful heels just didn’t quite fit the bill anymore. Still, heels for dudes have made minor cameos throughout history — early 19th century France, for example, or the glam rockers of the 1970s. The exhibit also showcases a few heels worn by male style icons, including Elton John and John Lennon.   

If men have periodically worn heels throughout history, why not now? Semmelhack suggested that Darwinism — that is, survival of the fittest — makes us want our men naturally taller, not amplified by false extra inches. Sort of like how hair plugs make a man more phoney than sexy.

Still, heels have found little ways to sneak into mainstream menswear. The cowboy boot? Yup, definitely a heel.

English, 18 (1)
English, 18th Century

“But we don’t see the cowboy as someone who wears heels — why not?” asked Semmelhack. Her curation offers a clear-eyed exploration of this discomfort, and, in turn, our evolving relationship with gender and power.

At the end of the exhibit sits a pair of black, chunky heels inside a glass box. They were made by high-end unisex designer Rad Hourani, from Montreal, in one of his more recent lines. Beside the shoes rests a small card with names of male celebrities who recently wore heels — Kanye West and Lenny Kravitz, to name two.

If Kanye wore it, are we sitting on the cusp of a men’s footwear revolution? Bros in stilettos? Not quite.

“It can happen! It can happen!” said Semmelhack. “Just maybe not yet.”

What do you think — should modern men wear heels? Share your comments below or tweet us at @ViewTheVibe.