Last week, Buzz Bissinger revealed that he has a shopping addiction—a serious condition for which he has checked into rehab. But it wasn’t just the news that surprised people—or the $600,000 price tag on his many Gucci purchases. There was something else shocking too: Bissinger’s experimental new style featured an array of high heels.
Recently it seems that men’s fashion has grown to accept new, formerly only feminine, styles. There have been Justin Bieber’s drop-crotch pants, mandals (men’s sandals), and even mantyhose. But all the while, another trend has been building: meels—or man heels. They are heeled boots for men that take a page from Louis XIV’s book, while finding a new form for today.
Meels are typically a black leather ankle boot with a squared toe, block heel, and concealed platform. It is a look favored by sleek hipsters who generally favor more severe fashions, like skinny black pants and sharply tailored jackets. In that sense, the addition of the angular “meel” does not seem at all out of place.
And they’re actually not always a feminine thing: the trend, most recently spotted on Bissinger, is not necessarily indicative of gender-bending. It’s less of a straight-aiming move for feminizing and more of a sure shot to finding what feels good, powerful, and maybe even slightly provocative. As Paper magazine’s editorial director Mickey Boardman described it: “You cannot wear a high heel shoe of this caliber without there being some sort of physical enjoyment of what it does to you.”
But, like he did with the rest of his wardrobe, Bissinger took the meel to new, exaggerated heights. The sportswriter favored skin-tight denim dungarees with knee-high meels (his from New Rock in Spain)—creating an over-the-top, disproportional effect. In fact, in his revelatory GQ essay, Bissinger labeled his own style as “rocker, edgy, tight, bad boy, hip, stylish, flamboyant, unafraid, raging against the conformity.” The description sums up his meel affection with aplomb.
But Bissinger isn’t the only man with a meel affinity. In recent years, it’s become a staple of young, fashion-obsessed men—a runoff mainly of the Paris-based unisex designer Rad Hourani’s meel design, which debuted at his inaugural runway show in 2007. “It took me a while to correct the shape to make sure it was a unisex shape, not masculine or feminine, but with a harmony of angles that go together,” Hourani explained to The Daily Beast of the iteration. An initial few runs of the shoe entirely sold out—and, Hourani says, most of the customers were men.
Even the artist Nick Cave is a fan of Hourani's shoes. "I like them because it's a bit more forward in terms of design," he told The Daily Beast. "I like a shoe that is really clean and more minimal...I just love the height on it, and how it really fits in with my overall sort of wardrobe. When I was in high school my mom bought me my first pair of platforms, so I've always been into that kind of shoe."
While Hourani’s Parisian cool-kid quotient may have helped grind the meel back into rotation, this is by no means the first time men have worn heels. Historically, men were actually the first to appropriate heel styles into the mainstream. “The idea is that women were copying the style of men,” explained Patricia Mears, fashion historian and deputy director for the Museum at FIT. “Men had a lot more freedom [with fashion] prior to the 19th century.”
The most famous heel adaptor was France’s Louis XIV who, according to Mears, was “a very accomplished ballet dancer and would dance in high heels.” His red-soled shoes were even the inspiration for Christian Louboutin’s cobbling signature that’s ignited an international craze for everything rouge.
Meels hit a peak in France during the pre-revolutionary portion of the 18th century. They were also popular with Cavaliers (a group of men who tipped the frillier end of the 1600s-attire scale) in the century prior, surpassing the highly conservative Puritans and the Roundhead status quo. But then “The Great Renunciation” (as it’s coined by fashion historians) hit the menswear industry—and feminine flourishes (like heels) were replaced with “bourgeois dark suits.” Suddenly, Mears says, “Men were not able to participate in fashion in the same way. If you loved color you were really limited.”
But The Great Renunciation’s bleak turn in menswear didn’t quite relinquish man’s yearning for high heels entirely. The taboo did not stop glam rock stars like Prince, Elton John, or Gene Simmons of KISS from wearing such styles onstage. Shorter men, including Tom Cruise and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, have also employed ‘Cuban’ heels for a lift in height (and likely, ego) when positioned next to their towering spouses. And more blatantly, peacocking transgenders have long employed heels as an empowering tool in feminine approach.
But these many disparate historical examples only help the meel’s case for wider adaptation. In some ways, the shoe style is representative of today’s gender politics. Says Hourani: “For me, I don’t understand who decides a heel is for a woman and not a man. I find that they have the same effect on both, they make them look longer and more lean.” Boardman concurs: “There is something about heels that they make you taller and make your leg and butt more shapely, they give you a sexy feeling—and that’s not just for women, it’s something everyone can enjoy.”