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The surprisingly functional reason high heels were invented

There are plenty of reasons why women wear high heels today — to dress up an outfit or lengthen one's silhouette, for example — but centuries ago, the shoes served a much different purpose.

High heels weren't even originally invented for women. (Surprise!) Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, traces their history to Persian men in the 10th century, who wore heels while on horseback so their feet would fit better in the stirrups. This trend that was then adopted by Europeans at the turn of the 17th century.

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    Jay Zukerkorn

    'Killer Heels': The art of the high-heeled shoe

    High-heeled shoes — a signifier of sexiness, femininity, glamour and status through the ages — are on display at the Brooklyn Museum.

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    Kicking off New York Fashion Week, a new exhibition at the Brooklyn Musuem entitled "Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe" looks at high-heeled shoes from the 1600s to the present. See some of the quirky and kinky shoes here.

    André Perugia's "Evening Sandals" 1928-29, made of leather and metal.

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    Cat Potter's "Pernilla, Look 5."

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    Aperlaï.'s “Geisha Lines,” from Fall 2013, made of leather.

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    Balenciaga's block heel, Spring 2013.

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    Beth Levine's “Kabuki,” an evening shoe, circa 1965 in silk, metal, and wood.

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    Casuccio e Scalera per Loris Azzaro's sandal, 1974–79 made of leather, synthetic material and cotton.

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    Chau Har Lee's “Blade Heel,” from 2010, made of perspex, stainless steel and leather.

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    Manchu Woman's Shoe, 19th century, from China, made of cotton and embroidered satin-weave silk.

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    Christian Dior and Roger Vivier's evening slippers for House of Dior,1960, made of silk, metal, synthetic and glass.

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    Christian Louboutin's “Metropolis,” Fall/Winter 2010-11, made of calfskin and silver spikes.

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    "Printz" by Christian Louboutin, Spring and Summer 2013-14.

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    French boots from 1900-1920s, made of leather and cellulose.

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    Iris van Herpen X United Nude's, “Beyond Wilderness,” from 2013.

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    French shoes from 1690-1700s, made of silk and leather.

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    Chopine's Italian shoe,1550-1650s, made of silk and metal. High-platformed shoes were especially popular among Venetian women.

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    JANTAMINIAU's “L’Image Tranquille,” 2013. Handcrafted by René van den Bezrg.

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    Miu Miu's "Cammeo Baroque" leather wedge, Fall/Winter 2006.

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    Nicholas Kirkwood's pumps, Spring/Summer 2013, made of suede with gold and clear Swarovski crystals.

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    Noritaka Tatehana's “Atom,” 2012-13, made from faux leather.

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    Prada's wedge sandal in Rosso, Bianco and Nero leather, Spring/Summer 2012.

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    Rem D. Koolhaas' “Eamz,” 2004.

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    Roger Vivier's "Virgule Houndstooth,” Fall 2014, made of calf hair.

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    Salvatore Ferragamo's platform sandal, 1938, made of leather and cork.

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    Victor's platform sandal, circa 1940, America, made of leather.

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    Vivienne Westwood's “Super Elevated Gillie,” 1993.

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    Walter Steiger's “Unicorn Tayss,” Spring 2013.

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    Winde Rienstra's “Bamboo Heel,” 2012, made of bamboo, glue and plastic cable ties.

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"There is a long history of men wearing heels for equestrian purposes," Semmelhack, author of "Standing Tall: The Curious History of Men in Heels," tells TODAY Style. "As we know, cowboys wear heels."

The high heel was originally about function, not fashion, during times of war, she says.

"The heel was an additional tool allowing the rider to steady himself, thus using weaponry better and transforming warfare," Semmelhack adds.

Bettmann / Bettmann Archive
Clint Eastwood playing a gunslinging cowboy in the '50s.

RELATED: These men tried wearing heels for one day — and failed miserably

But soon after, women embraced the look — just like boyfriend jeans and button-up shirts, right? — and by the 18th century, high-heeled shoes were largely considered women's footwear. They slowly began to take the shape we know now, with a thinner heel and pointed toe.

But the point of wearing heels was hardly to look good in a miniskirt. Women of the 1700s wore high heels to make their feet look smaller, Semmelhack explains.

"As beauty ideals shifted, one of the principles that emerged was that beautiful women had very tiny feet," she says. "(The high heel) hid the majority of a woman's foot under her skirt, so she could just present the tiny part of the shoe, the toes, from under the skirt.

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"People say all the time that women wear heels because it elongates their legs or makes them taller or thinner, but that use of the high heel is very recent," Semmelhack continues. "Early on, it had nothing to do with lengthening the leg, because legs were hidden under skirts, so no one cared! It was about presenting a small foot."

At the time, heels were mostly made of wood, so they could only be made so thin. It wasn't until the 1950s that shoemakers started to use steel for high heels, meaning they could be thinner and still support a woman's body weight.

Bata Museum
The Persian riding boot was originally made for men to wear.

"That was when the stiletto was born, when you got those remarkably thin, needle-like high heels," Semmelhack says. "Prior to that, it was just a dream."

RELATED: How to wear (and recover) from high-heeled shoes

Of course, any self-respecting shoe lover knows that's hardly the end of the story. Heels have continued to evolve, from platforms to wedges to armadillo boots and beyond.

Who knew shoes were so complex, right? But at least the next time someone tells you that your pumps aren't practical, you can retort back: "Well, they used to be."

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