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Where Did High Heels Come From?

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High heels, though a staple of nearly every woman’s closet these days, aren’t exactly the most reasonably designed footwear. We wobble and slip and turn our ankles on every uneven stone, but refuse to trade them in for more sensible flats and sneakers. Where did these impractical shoes come from?

As discussed in a recent episode of BBC’s The Why Factor, high heels point back to an unlikely source: men. For centuries, high heels were worn as a form of riding footwear, according to Elizabeth Semmelhack of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. The heel helped a rider secure his stance in the stirrups so he could shoot arrows more effectively; this was useful particularly in Persia (modern-day Iran), where the fighting style relied a great deal on good horsemanship.


17th century Persian shoes, made from horsehide and pressed mustard seeds. Image courtesy The Star/Bata Shoe Museum.

In 1599, the Persian shah sent a diplomatic mission to Europe, and an interest in Persian culture and fashion swept Western Europe. Aristocrats took a liking to Persian high-heeled shoes—they were bold, masculine, and perfect for asserting status. When the lower classes caught on and adopted the shoes, the aristocracy simply increased the height of their footwear, in accordance with the social order. They were useless on the cobbled streets of 17th Century Europe, but that was the whole appeal: Privileged men rarely walked anywhere, and ridiculous accessories highlighted their luxurious lifestyles.

Christian Louboutin wasn’t the first to use red soles as a status symbol, either: Louis XIV, King of France, beat him to it by over three centuries. At only 5 feet 4 inches, or 1.63 meters, the monarch boosted his stature with heels—always red, an expensive dye. In the 1670s, Louis XIV issued an edict limiting red heels to members of his court; only the favored few could wear this ostentatious color.


A 1701 portrait of Louis XIV, wearing his trademark red heels. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

How, then, did high heels become part of women’s fashion? Semmelhack offered an explanation to William Kremer of BBC News Magazine:

"In the 1630s you had women cutting their hair, adding epaulettes to their outfits. They would smoke pipes, they would wear hats that were very masculine. And this is why women adopted the heel - it was in an effort to masculinise their outfits."

Eventually, though, the unisex heel branched into a low, stacked heel for men and a slender heel for women, and when the Enlightenment rolled around, men’s dress became more sensible and understated. The distinction between classes was vanishing, and women—seen as silly, vapid, and overly sentimental—became the curators of the high heel and other pretentious, impractical fashions. By 1740, men stopped wearing high heels entirely.

Once functioning as sensible footwear for horseback riding, high heels evolved into stilettos and pumps, impractical but irresistible signifiers of femininity and wealth. Fashion is cyclical, though, and perhaps someday they will be seen as symbols of power and status—and maybe men will reclaim the shoe that they created.

[via BBC News Magazine]

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Do Cats Fart?
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Certain philosophical questions can invade even the most disciplined of minds. Do aliens exist? Can a soul ever be measured? Do cats fart?

While the latter may not have weighed heavily on some of history’s great brains, it’s certainly no less deserving of an answer. And in contrast to existential queries, there’s a pretty definitive response: Yes, they do. We just don’t really hear it.

According to veterinarians who have realized their job sometimes involves answering inane questions about animals passing gas, cats have all the biological hardware necessary for a fart: a gastrointestinal system and an anus. When excess air builds up as a result of gulping breaths or gut bacteria, a pungent cloud will be released from their rear ends. Smell a kitten’s butt sometime and you’ll walk away convinced that cats fart.

The discretion, or lack of audible farts, is probably due to the fact that cats don’t gulp their food like dogs do, leading to less air accumulating in their digestive tract.

So, yes, cats do fart. But they do it with the same grace and stealth they use to approach everything else. Think about that the next time you blame the dog.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Are the Northern Lights?
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Over the centuries, many have gazed up at one of the Earth’s most fascinatingly beautiful natural wonders: the Northern Lights. In the past couple of weeks, some lucky American stargazers have gotten the chance to see them from their very own backyards—and could again this week, according to Thrillist. But what are they?

Before science was able to get a read on what exactly was happening in the night sky, ancient tribes had their own theories for what caused the jaw-dropping light show. Many early beliefs had roots in religion, such as that the light was a pathway souls traveled to reach heaven (Eskimo tribes) or that the light was an eternal battle of dead warriors (Middle-Age Europe). Early researchers were a bit more reasonable in their approximations, and most surrounded the idea of the reflection of sunlight off the ice caps. In 1619, Galileo Galilei named the lights the aurora borealis after Aurora, the Roman goddess of morning, after concluding they were a product of sunlight reflecting from the atmosphere.

Today, scientists have come to the general agreement that the lights are caused by the collision of electrically charged solar particles and atoms from our atmosphere. The energy from the collisions is released as light, and the reason it happens around the poles is because that's where the Earth’s magnetic field is the strongest. In 2008, a team at UCLA concluded that “when two magnetic field lines come close together due to the storage of energy from the sun, a critical limit is reached and the magnetic field lines reconnect, causing magnetic energy to be transformed into kinetic energy and heat. Energy is released, and the plasma is accelerated, producing accelerated electrons.”

"Our data show clearly and for the first time that magnetic reconnection is the trigger," said Vassilis Angelopoulos, a UCLA professor of Earth and Space Sciences. "Reconnection results in a slingshot acceleration of waves and plasma along magnetic field lines, lighting up the aurora underneath even before the near-Earth space has had a chance to respond. We are providing the evidence that this is happening."

The best time to see the Northern Lights is during the winter, due to the Earth’s position in relation to the sun (shorter days means darker night skies). And by the way, it’s not just the North Pole that puts on a show—there are Southern Lights, too. There are also aurora borealis on other planets—including Mars—so rest assured that future generations born “abroad” will not miss out on this spectacular feat of nature.

Haven’t seen them yet? Traditionally, the best places to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights are in Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Greenland, northern Canada, and Alaska. Maybe you'll get lucky this week and sneak a peek from your very own window. Check out Aurorasaurus for regular updates on where they are showing.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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