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Where Did High Heels Come From?

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Thinkstock

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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Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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Big Questions
What Happened to the Physical Copy of the 'I Have a Dream' Speech?
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AFP, Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

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