Why? After all, they are clumsy and terribly uncomfortable, they're hard and unhealthy on the ankles, and they often cause the wearer to shake, stumble, wobble, and sometimes fall, often with accompanying injuries.
Well, probably the same reason women have worn corsets, bound their feet, yanked off glued-on false eyelashes, and put on and worn a few scores of other painful fashion statements. In other words, to please and attract men! High heels may be terribly uncomfortable and bad for the ankles, but guys love them!!!!
And women, on behalf of us countless millions of very grateful guys, I thank you- and I assure you, this thanks is very sincere. Nothing, but nothing, in all of a woman's vast and various wardrobe makes a woman look as sexy as when she puts on high heels.
Okay, thanks from very happy men aside, where did high heels come from? To answer succinctly... men. Ironic, isn't it?
According to Elizabeth Semmelhack of the Bata Shoe Museum of Toronto, high heels were originally designed for and worn by men. The higher heel helped secure a male rider and steady his stance in the stirrups so he could shoot his arrows more effectively. This was particularly useful in Persia (now Iran) where the fighting style relied to a good degree on good horsemanship. Seventeenth-century male Persian shoes are still in existence in the Bata Museum, made from horsehide and pressed mustard seeds.
In 1599, the Persian Shah sent a diplomatic mission to Europe and an interest in Persian culture and fashion swept western Europe. European aristocrats took a liking to Persian high-heeled shoes- they were bold, masculine, and perfect for asserting power and status.
When the lower classes caught on and started to wear the shoes themselves, the aristocracy simply increased the height of their footwear. The aristocracy also got a bit of a break, as high-heeled shoes were murder on the cobbled streets of 17th century Europe. This was perfect for the aristocrats, who never walked anywhere- unlike the peasants and commoners. Also, the ridiculous-looking accessories highlighted the aristocrats' luxurious lifestyles.
King Louis XIV of France was one of the first of the upper classes to boost himself, both literally and figuratively, in high heels. First off, King Louis was only 5' 4”, so the shoes helped him with his Napoleonic complex (even though Napoleon wasn't even born yet). King Louis, to further assert himself and his superior status, always had his heels dyed with an expensive red dye.
In the 1670's, King Louis issued an official edict, limiting red heels to members of his court. Only a favored few could wear the color.
Women's fashion? Well, although high heels began with men, according to William Kremer of BBC News Magazine: “In the 1630's, you had women cutting their hair, adding epaulettes to their outfits, they would smoke pipes, they would wear hats that were very masculine. And that is why women added the heel. It was an effort to masculinize their outfits.” I repeat, ironic, isn't it?
Eventually, the unisex high heels evolved into a lower, thicker heel for men and a long, slender heel for women. The Enlightenment brought a more sensible, understated dress style for men. Also, the distinction between the classes was vanishing.
But women, at the time, were thought of as silly, sentimental, and vapid- and their fashion style became associated with high heels, as well as other highly decorative, but pretentious and highly impractical fashions. Women's high heels soon evolved into stilettos and pumps- impractical, but signs of femininity- and sexuality.
By the mid-19th century, high heels were the preferred choice of dress for saloon girls and ladies of the evening. The shoes were a flaunting of a woman's sexuality, and, as the women must surely have noticed, a magnet for attracting the attention of men.
So "nice girls" still wore flats and practical footwear, until the 1920's and those most revolutionary of all women- the flappers. In the Roaring Twenties, flappers brought on the idea and belief that being a woman could actually be fun. Flappers helped women enjoy their womanhood by making it "okay" to don high heels, slap on make-up, smoke cigarettes, shorten those dresses that dragged on the floor and generally adopt a freer, more independent spirit.
Today, decades later, almost every woman over the age of 16 has donned a pair of high heels and, believe it or not, had a great time, not only pleasing a date, boyfriend, or husband, but just having a great time being herself. And although high heels originally were worn by men, with precious few exceptions, they now seem to be the sole (no pun intended) province of ladies.