V234: What Kind of Heel Is That? A Quick Guide to Historical Shoe Heels

Following yesterday’s post about why we no longer have proper French heels on shoes, I thought it would be good to add to and define some of the terminology, and create a little shoe heel guide.  So without further ado…

The French Heel
Also called the “Louis” heel, after King Louis XIV, the French heel features a curved “waist,” with a flare at the bottom.  The front side of the heel (the “breast”), under the arch of the foot, has an inward curve, and the sole covers the breast, the arch, and down under the ball of the foot, in one piece.  The French heel remained the most popular heel shape and construction from the 17th century to the 1920s.  These are all French heels:

LACMA 1760-65
The Met 1885-95
LACMA, 1920

The Cuban Heel
The Cuban is a straight-sided heel often made of stacked leather or wood, but sometimes also covered in material, or painted.  Low and blocky, the Cuban is more commonly a “knock on” heel, which means the sole leather does not continue down the breast, but rather the heel is constructed completely, then attached, with no further crafting.  Cuban heels became popular around 1900, and were the primary fashion heel of the 1930s, alongside the Spanish heel.  These are Cubans:

Etsy (via), c. 1900
Etsy (via), late 1920s
American Duchess collection – 1940s

The Spanish Heel
Spanish heels are straight-sided, tall, and tapering.  Most popular from the 1920s onward, the Spanish heel was typically constructed of wood covered with textile or leather, with the sole in one with the breast, like a French heel.  Spanish heels are taller and thinner than Cuban heels, and were sometimes called “spike” heels in the 1920s.  These are Spanish heels:

American Duchess collection, 1920s
Met, 1935-40

The Military Heel
Similar to and sometimes synonymous with the Cuban heel, the Military heel became popular for women in the late Victorian period.  It is low, straight-sided, often stacked wood, and broad.  Cowboy boots still feature Military heels.  Here are examples of Military heels from the past:

Sears Catalog, no. 124, 1912
Met, 1908-1912

Opera and Kidney Heels
Opera and Kidney heels both have straight breasts and curved necks, or “waists.”  They are similar to French heels, but are typically knock-on heels.  The Kidney is higher than the Opera.  Here are both Kidney and Opera heels:

American Duchess Collection, Edwardian period
American Duchess Collection, 1870-1880
Met, 1860-79

Italian and Kitten Heels
The Italian heel was common for the 1780s and 90s, and featured a slender waist and small flare at the base.  A large wedge supported the arch.  The term “Italian heel” hasn’t been in use since the 18th century, but has been replaced by “Kitten heel,” a small, low heel with a sharp taper and sometimes a small flare at the base.  Here are examples of Italian and Kitten heels:

The Met, 1785-90
Kitten Heel: Etsy, 1980s

The Stiletto Heel
We’re all familiar with these – the most popular shape of the second half of the 20th century and still today, the Stiletto heel was invented by Roger Vivier in the early 1950s, and uses a steel spigot encased in material (most often plastic, but originally, for a very short time, wood) for stability and strength.  Stilettos are characteristically very high and very thin.  These are stiletto heels:

Stiletto: Vivier for Dior, late 1950s

The Common Sense Heel
Common Sense heels are low, broad, and usually stacked wood or leather.  This type of heel was very common on walking shoes of the mid-Victorian period, and still found today.  These are period Common Sense Heels:

V and A, 1800-1849
The Met, 1860s

The Platform Heel
Platform heels are not specifically a type of heel, but rather a type of shoe.  The platform is beneath the ball of the foot, elevating the entire shoe, which calls for an extra-tall heel.  In the 1940s, heels used for platforms were straight-sided Cubans or Spanish heels, as well as wedges.  Today, platforms are paired with Stilettos, Wedges, and huge chunky novelty heels.

Etsy (via) – 1940s
LACMA, 1942

The Wedge
Just as the name implies Wedge heels have no sculpting under the arch, but are one solid piece, very commonly made of cork, between the ball of the foot and the heel.  Wedges became popular in the 1930s, and were straight-sided.  Platform wedges are found in the 1940s and 50s, and the style has been ever popular through the 20th century and today.  These are historic wedges:

Wedge: Etsy, 1970s


  • StephC

    August 22, 2012 at 12:08 AM

    Wow. Amazing reference post, thank you!

    I tend to wear kitten heels or ballet flats. Stilettos just don't work for me, and it's difficult to find "daywear" heels…

    • Lauren Stowell

      August 22, 2012 at 1:29 AM

      I agree! A good pair of 2-2.5 inch heels can be such a pleasure to wear. I had a great pair of spectator t-straps I used to wear to work – got them at Target of all places – with a low heel. Then the dog ate them. Jerk dog!

  • catspaw

    August 22, 2012 at 12:18 AM

    Very cool! Really nice to see the progression; I remember most of them as 'revivals', My first pair of heels at 15 were black patent leather with French heels–oh how I loved those shoes!! *sigh*

    • Lauren Stowell

      August 22, 2012 at 1:30 AM

      Long live the revivals! I'm really loving the vintage 1920s, 30s, and 40s revivals happening right now. In fact, I love them so much I'm planning some for the 2013 styles, all with correctly shaped heels, of course 🙂

  • The Laced Angel

    August 22, 2012 at 12:49 AM

    Fabulous reference post! I feel smarter already. I love that you not only intensively research and design wonderful shoes, but educate us all so that we can appreciate them all the more. You're amazing!

  • jonathan b

    August 22, 2012 at 2:16 AM

    thank you for this, i knew the term spike heel was for heels like that but i didnt know about the spanish heel term. I serious whish designers would make more shoes with heels like that i hate that every shoe has a stilletto now a days

    • Lauren Stowell

      August 22, 2012 at 8:53 PM

      You're absolutely right. This post focuses on women's shoe heels, but men's heels have names too. So long as it tapers in under the heel and is straight sided and fairly short, it's a Cuban. 🙂

  • Scene in the Past

    August 22, 2012 at 3:06 AM

    This is fantastic! Do you have any input on the modern straight sort of heel? I got frustrated with a lot of modern heels which had amazingly 40s or 30s uppers, but the heel was all off. I figured out it was because a lot of times modern heels drop straight down from the back of the shoe, instead of slanting, tapering, or curving back under the shoe. Do you know if there's a name for that? It's so hard to find a true vintage-style heel on modern shoes!

    • Lauren Stowell

      August 22, 2012 at 8:55 PM

      I don't know of a specific name for the straight off-the-back heels, but I absolutely loathe them. They are not only ugly, they throw your whole spine out of alignment when you wear them. I have the same frustration with the retro uppers, but the totally wrong heels – part of my crusade for spot-on historical and vintage style shoes!

  • Hana - Marmota

    August 22, 2012 at 8:41 AM

    Fantastic guide! But now I can't make up my mind about the heels on my shoes. They're something between opera and kitten and Spanish… low, but not tiny as kittens, more curved than the opera example you've shown, but knock-on. What am I to think?! 😉

    • Lauren Stowell

      May 26, 2016 at 11:55 PM

      I have not heard of a Waterloo heel specifically, but my guess would be that it was a heel inspired by or in the style of what was being worn in the early 19th century. Heels of the same shapes often were renamed throughout their individual histories to evoke a certain time period. A good example of this is the Louis heel – AKA French heels, Pompadour heels, Antoinette heels, waisted heels, spool heels. These are all the same basic heel shape, but depending on the time period, the maker, how they were being marketed, what was in fashion at the time, what was in the news at the time, they change names.

  • Pam WhimsicalVintage

    April 3, 2021 at 4:03 PM

    So interesting and such a great post! I love the quirky side of research, the best info comes from the smallest details! Thank you so much!

  • El

    March 3, 2022 at 8:04 AM

    Have you heard of Queen Anne heels? They were apparently popular in the 60s. I am trying to figure out what they looked like. Thank you for your fascinating article.

  • Anonymous

    January 5, 2023 at 2:37 AM

    I love the variety of historical heels. Is it just me, or do most of those look a lot more comfortable than most modern heels?


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