What Marco Rubio’s heels say about fashion – and height – in American politics

Presidential candidate Marco Rubio dons Cuban heels at a town hall meeting in Rochester, New Hampshire. Brian Snyder/Reuters

The uproar over Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio’s decision to sport Cuban heels shows two things. First, height matters – at least, for skyscrapers and presidential elections. Second, a heeled boot born of the French courts is apparently a misstep for a 21st-century American politician.

Though the 5'10" Rubio was mercilessly mocked for his choice of footwear, you can’t blame the guy for trying. From Louis XIV to Vladimir Putin, history has plenty of examples of shorter men seeking power with a little help from their shoes.

Finding fashion inspiration from Louis XIV. Wikimedia Commons

Being tall is a genetic boon. Research has drawn conclusive ties between height and success in business, dating and school.

Clad in black Beatles boots, Marco Rubio joins a long line of short men looking for lift. Some blatantly joke about it (Silvio Berlusconi, 5'5"); others refuse to acknowledge their lifts (Kim Jong Il, 5'3"). And as Harry Truman (5'9") and Jimmy Carter (5'10") can attest, a smaller stature won’t prevent you from being elected.

But being short makes it a heck of a lot harder. Taft, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Johnson, Ford and Reagan were all over six feet, as are Bush, Clinton and Obama. In fact, the taller candidate won in 80 percent of all elections in the 20th century. Swedish psychologists, American political scientists and Dutch labor analysts all agree: we look to the tall to lead.

So can we really chastise a politician for playing the game?

And then there’s the fact that, historically, Americans are all about using clothes as a social apparatus, whether it’s to stand out or fit in. Want to blend in with the boys from Princeton’s Cottage Club? Grab a tweed sports coat. Want to hide your Ivy League origins? Jeans and sweatshirt may help.

What bothers Americans about Rubio’s boots is that they have a heel. Sure, Cuban heels are beloved by British pop stars and South American soccer players (off the pitch, of course), but American men don’t wear heels – at least, according to our prevailing ideas of masculinity.

While the boots may be a new addition to the political arena, Cuban heels have actually cycled in and out of the public eye for nearly a century.

Their popularity date back to the days of embroidered tailcoats and powdered wigs. Men in heels first became fashionable in 17th-century France, when aristocratic men wanted to make the calves below their culottes look curvaceous. So they borrowed a style of elevated footwear that had been popular in Persia.

Beyond the apparent height advantages, it would be wrong to characterize Rubio’s boots as an attempt to be fashion-forward. Nor did Rubio likely have French aristocrats in mind when lacing up.

Instead, he may have been trying to highlight his Cuban roots. The boot certainly conjures Miami gangsters a la Scarface’s Tony Montana. It also brings to mind Tony Manero, the well-coiffed, aspiring dancer in Saturday Night Fever played by John Travolta.

John Travolta rocked heels for Saturday Night Fever (1977). Paramount Pictures

In 17th-century Spain, male Flamenco dancers began wearing heeled boots in order to attract the attention of onlookers. The wooden heels clicked and clacked, directing the gaze to the dancer’s footwork. Worn originally by the Romani people in Spain (Gitanos), the heeled boot made its way to South America, and eventually onto the feet of Havana’s musicians. The aesthetic influence of Cuban theater, music and dance loomed large in American culture in the mid-20th century, so many Americans were aware of the boot even before the Beatles wore them.

French aristocrats and Flamenco dancers aside, perhaps Rubio’s controversial footwear is inspired by something even more simple. Ted Cruz (5'8") seems to have staked his claim on the ever-popular cowboy boot.

Maybe Rubio is just looking for something to make himself stand out – and up.