By Frank de Jesus

Every fashion worshipper holds a sacred and dear admiration for footwear. Any of them worth their salt could easily describe their first introduction to the high-heeled pump. For me, like many in my generation, my very first intimate encounter with a pump was of the thumb-sized plastic variety while enthusiastically jamming it onto the pliable, rubbery, vinyl foot of an 11 ½ inch fashion model named Barbie whose tiny feet were forever arched in anticipation of their high-heeled mates. My second meaningful encounter came at the onset of adolescence when my newly eleven year-old eyes were glued to MTV and Madonna’s “Borderline” video, where the brand new pop star chirped catchy lyrics while subjugating a bright orange pump with a florescent green baby-sock. Punk-minded performers of the time, like Madonna and Debbie Harry, re-claimed the high-heeled pump as an icon of power rather than constraint, therefore a new generation of powerful women were able to storm the boardrooms of the 1980’s – with the pump as part of the uniform. The stiletto pump at this point had only been around for 40 years, however we have been wearing this shoe in one form or another for the last 500.

Around 1500, shoes began to be made with two parts, a flexible upper attached to a sturdier sole (prior to this, contemporary shoes were primitive sock-like things at best). They were called “pompes”. The introduction of a heel, shortly thereafter, was in fact for the purpose of keeping a rider’s foot in a horse stirrup. This practical accomplishment became the basis for all shoes. Leonardo da Vinci is sometimes credited with inventing the higher heel, though it’s origin is unknown. What has been recorded is an account of a petite bride, Catherine d’Medici, who at age 14 donned a pair of two-inch slippers to appear taller at her 1533 wedding. The high heel trend starts and stays exclusive to a highborn, royal and short of stature fan base for a century, with “Bloody” Mary Tudor also employing them for height and ends in the 17th century with the vertically challenged King Louis XIV. King Louis’ affinity for high-heeled, red-soled pumps made them enviable. Everyone wanted to emulate his majesty and pretty soon they did, making the high-heeled pump or “court shoe”, the footwear of choice for both sexes. If only Christian Louboutin had that luck.

The pump remained relatively unchanged until the French Revolution, and even then they were simplified to a flat-heeled slipper (think, ballet). By the time of the Civil War, men’s styles had morphed into the lace up variety we see today, though you can still see the original pump’s influence in a loafer or tuxedo slipper. The modern age and suffrage are what took women’s pumps in a new direction. In the 1920’s fabrications lightened up, and an ankle or t strap insured that a lady’s shoe stayed in place when kicking up her heels. Vogue magazine’s first mention of a “stiletto” was in 1952, so named because the newly slender heels were “blade-slim”. Shoe designers, such as Charles Jourdan and Roger Vivier, jumped on the trend making the stiletto pump di rigueur for the 1950’s woman. TV’s June Cleaver even wore them with her pearls when she vacuumed.

The stiletto pump took a backseat after the Beatles era and was resurrected by the punk and street style scene of the late 1970’s. Since then, that classic sharp-heeled silhouette has come to be associated with many different sides of the female persona, from ladylike and prim to fetishized femme fatale and power-suited executive – no other shoe style has so single-handedly captured the popular culture (and women’s feet).

Pump Timeline

Approx. 1500 – Shoes begin to be made in two pieces, with a flexible upper attached to a heavier, stiffer sole. They are called “pompes”.

1533 – Catherine d’Medici wears high-heeled pompes to marry Henry, Duke of Orléans, also the future king of France.

1660 – French shoemaker Nicholas Lestage, becomes shoemaker to Louis XIV. The heels of Louis’s shoes, some decorated with miniature battle scenes, are as tall as five inches. High “Louis” heels are also fashionable for ladies.

Early 1800’s – Flat shoes and Grecian-style sandals become popular after the French Revolution.
Approx. 1865 – Ladies’ heel heights again vary but stay below two inches during the rest of the century.

1920’s – Women’s high-heeled shoes are made lighter and finer with new materials and adapt straps for versatility.

1940’s – Wartime rationing of leather sees shoes made in alternative new materials. Reptile skins and mesh are popular, so are wood and cork soled “wedgies”.

1954 – French shoemaker Roger Vivier creates the first widely popular slim heeled shoe, at eight centimeters (around three inches) high. Tall “stiletto” heels for women’s shoes become a fashion rage.

1967 – Photographer Guy Bourdin fixes his lens on designer Charles Jourdin’s pumps. The collaboration will last into the eighties, with the racy, bondage inspired images selling sexy stilettos to the jet set.

1980’s – Athletic shoes diversify and gain popularity. Many women (such as Tess McGill in 1988’s Working Girl) begin wearing them to work or for commuting before abandoning them for pumps.

1991 – Shoe designer Christian Louboutin, a former apprentice to stiletto maestro Roger Vivier, sets up shop in Paris. A year later he will gain attention when he paints the soles of his shoes red.

2000 – In an episode of Sex and the City, Carrie Bradshaw is mugged for her Manolo Blahnik shoes. Looking down the barrel of a gun, she pleads, “Please, sir, they’re my favorite pair!”

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