While higher classes wore them ceremonially, ancient Egyptian butchers wore high-heeled shoes to keep their feet elevated above the inevitable pools of animal blood. The arched footwear pops up in history from time to time for the next few thousand years in various capacities, but the birth of the spike-like stiletto heel (named after an Italian dagger in the same shape), an iconic modern element of woman’s shoes in western fashion, began with a gradual narrowing of the heel—first seen in 19th century fashion drawings. Then in 1931, revolutionary Italian-French designer André Perugia designed a one-off pair of shoes (resembling fish) that could be called the first stiletto heels. To handle the heel’s thinness, it is thought that they were made out of a steel alloy. The actual name “stiletto” was first in print that year, although probably used even earlier in fashion circles. Mass-production and the explosion in popularity of stilettos didn’t occur until a designer realized that inserting a metal shaft in the heel would enable it to be strikingly thin. The first designer to come up with this is unknown—but Salvatore Ferragamo has been named among the candidates. A bit of nomenclature: while the high heel can vary greatly in length and diameter, it doesn’t become a stiletto until it is a little less than half an inch in diameter and one inch or more in height.
Photo by Stephen Lang