Who invented the stiletto?

I have been asked this question and I am sorry to say there is no simple answer.

Early 1930s shoe with a wooden heel that could be described as a stiletto

The original stiletto was a dagger with a short, slim, tapered blade. The first time the word was used to describe a heel can be found through an online search dating back to April 1931 in the Vidette-Messenger a newspaper from Valparaiso, Indiana: “A shaved, modern stiletto heel appears on trimmed opera pumps for tailored clothes.” However, in this sense, the word is being used descriptively, as an adjective.

Similarly, a New York Times article from 1948, describes Lily Dache’s first fashion collection as having “‘stiletto shape skirts”, and in July 1950 the New York Times also describes “black sequin stilettos” trimming white felt hats from Paris.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites a March, 1953 advertisement in the Advocate, a Newark Ohio newspaper as the first time the word “stiletto” is used as a noun: “The Italian idea in fashion… Florentine stilettos… The slender fabric shoe, poised on a slim dagger of a heel.” Although the word ‘stiletto’ is used as a noun, it is then defined so the reader understands what the word means, which implies new word usage.

Meanwhile, in the shoe industry, high heels had been around, off and on, since the 17th century, but the heels could never be thinner than about 3 inches in circumference if they were not to snap while being worn.

1954 shoes in reality by Newton Elkin for Pandora

In a conversation I had with shoe designer Beth Levine before her death, she remembered how all the shoe designers wanted thin heels in the early 1950s, but the reality was that the technology was not in place to realize the fantasy. She discovered a French sculptor by the name of Charles Jordan (not to be confused with the shoe designer and manufacturer Charles Jourdan.) Jordan made impossibly thin heels from laminated wood. They were strong and could be used on shoes but the cost was too great to make them practicable for mass manufacturing.

Shoes in fantasy - the same shoes with much thinner heels as envisioned by the designer, but not technologically possible

Unrelated to designer desires, a high-density poly-ethylene was developed in 1951. This was one of the first engineering plastics that could be moulded. With the addition of an aluminum or steel tube or shaft inserted down the center for strength, these new heels could be wrapped in leather or textile to match the rest of the shoe and nobody would even know there had been a change in the heel’s material.

Shoe designers began using the new heels and soon realized that the heels could be made thinner, and thinner, until the waist – the thinnest part of the heel, was no thicker than the narrowest steel tube that was used in the heel’s construction. By 1956, the stiletto heel, also called a ‘needle’ or ‘spike’ heel, as we know it, was born. The following year, in 1957, the stiletto heel was shown in conjunction with a sharp, pointed toe. The new style dazzled women and the new shoe fashion became a hit.

Raphael, Rome, pointed toe, stiletto heeled shoes, c. 1960 - 1962

By 1960, the shoe industry  took the name stiletto to define a thin metal reinforced heel. The word ‘stiletto’ was also being used in fashion magazines to refer to the thin heel with credit being handed out to different designers for its creation.

Perugia had been influential for decades in modern shoe design and even held patents for a removable heel from 1926, and an articulated wooden sole from 1942. He had also shown a fish shaped shoe with a cast steel heel in 1931 as a wearable art piece, as well as a metal ‘cage’ heel in the early 1950s. However, he did not ‘invent’ the stiletto.

Ferragamo had found new ways to use non-traditional materials in shoe production in the 1930s, and almost single-handedly revived the platform sole and wedge heel. However, he did not ‘invent’ the stiletto.

Roger Vivier had worked as a freelance shoe designer, and received the commission to create the shoes for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953. That same year Vivier was offered the position as shoemaker for Christian Dior and over the years created various heel shapes, giving them names including the talon aguille (needle heel) in 1954. The needle heel may be considered a stiletto, however, Vivier’s heel was more about height than girth – the higher the heel the thinner it looked, but there was still a lot of meat on Vivier’s needle heels and he only gave an existing heel a new name – it did not use the metal reinforced plastic heel.

Unfortunately, there is no neat little story that can wrap up a chain of events to answer the question of who invented the stiletto heel. There are three elements to this story that each developed independent of the other: 1) There was an artistic desire by many different shoe designers to create a narrow heel before it was technologically possible, 2) There was a technological development of a metal reinforced plastic heel that was created because it was primarily cheaper to produce than wood heels, 3) The use of the word ‘stiletto’ was being used to describe a short, slim, tapered object, like a heel.

When shoe design met technology and was paired up with the term ‘stiletto’, the style was born – but nobody single handedly invented the stiletto.

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
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