History of Shoes

Step into a modern shoe store and take a look around. High-heeled and platform shoes, boots, sandals, moccasins, wooden-heeled clogs, quite a variety for today’s shopper. Recent fashions? Well, not one of the footwear styles you see today is less than 400 years old! The History of Shoes is indeed interesting.

The loftiest high-heeled and platform shoes you can find today are flat pumps compared with some of the shoes in fashion during earlier European eras. No, our ancestors didn’t don stilt-like monsters to raise themselves above muddy streets, or for any other utilitarian reason. In former times, as today, shoe style was dictated by fashion, among the upper classes, at least. Class distinction via footwear? Yes, differentiation of shoe styles to indicate social rank is as old as Western civilization.

In ancient Egypt, the sandal demonstrated a person’s rank in society. Slaves either went barefoot or wore crude sandals made from palm leaves. Common citizens wore sandals of woven papyrus, consisting of a flat sole tied to the foot by a thong between the toes. But sandals with pointed toes were reserved only for the higher stations of society, and the colors red and yellow were taboo for anyone below the aristocratic rank.

Shoes have been regarded as a sign of dignity since well before the Christian era. In the book of Exodus, 3:5, when God appears to Moses in the burning bush, His first command is “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the ground whereon thou standest is holy ground.”

Conversely, going barefoot has often demonstrated humility and piety in the presence of God. Hindu documents, thousands of years old, warn worshippers to remove their footwear before entering a shrine; and Muslim tradition demands today that shoes be removed before entering a place of worship.

In the days of ancient Greece, aristocratic women owned as many as twenty pairs of shoes, with a style to match every occasion. Slaves were employed solely to carry a supply of their lady’s shoes when she left home, assuring that she would be appropriately shod throughout her travels.

The Chinese custom of binding women’s feet to keep them small is many centuries old. Originally, the practice owed little to pedal aesthetics, bound feet were thought to insure faithfulness, since with such deformed feet the wife would supposedly find it difficult to travel very far on her own.

In the West, shoes have had a place in marriage ceremonies for many centuries. In some cultures, the bride’s father threw his shoes at the newlyweds to signify the transfer of authority from father to husband. In Anglo-Saxon ceremonies, shoes were as indispensable as the wedding ring is today. Instead of exchanging rings with her betrothed, the bride customarily passed her shoes to her husband, who then tapped her on the head with a shoe.

During the Middle Ages, in the colder climes, the sandal gave way to more protective footwear. Often, a single piece of untanned hide was wrapped around the foot and tied with a leather thong. Beginning in the twelfth century, the sabot, a shoe cut roughly from a single piece of wood, was the predominant footwear of the European peasant. In those times, the Dutch were not unusual in their use of the wooden shoe. In England, the sabot took the form of the clog, a fabric mounted on a wooden platform. In Japan, wooden shoes mounted on thin blocks three or four inches high have been worn for centuries. The Japanese traditionally selected their wooden shoes with an ear for the sound made by the wooden blocks, for a discordant pair of clodhoppers were considered the epitome of poor taste.

The long journeys undertaken by European crusaders made stronger, longer-lasting shoes a necessity, but medieval aristocrats still took their cue from fancy. The wearing of elaborate, unwieldy footwear was an indication of lordly rank, demonstrating that the wearer did not, and could not, perform manual labor. Such shoes were genuine “loafers.”

Pointed shoes originated in France, reportedly the invention of a Count of Anjou who wished to hide his deformed hooves. To assure that the peasantry did not ape the aristocrats, the twelfth-century French king Philip Augustus decreed that the points of his subjects’ souliers should be between six and twelve inches long, depending upon one’s station.

But the rush toward outlandishly long shoes went on unabated. Fashionable shoes were soon so long that their toes had to be stuffed to prevent the wearer from constantly tripping over the ends. In the fourteenth century, the points of shoes grew to such monstrous lengths that some had to be fastened to the wearer’s leg just below the knee.

The clergy objected vehemently to the fashion, claiming that the long-pointed shoes prevented the faithful from kneeling in church. In many communities, shoe-point length was eventually limited by law to about two inches.

In the sixteenth century, aristocratic French women began wearing high-heeled shoes so steep that the well-heeled wearer was literally standing on her toes when she wore them. Later, stiltlike wooden platform shoes became the rage in Venice. The heels eventually became so high that women could not walk in them, and servants were hired to help the ladies in and out of their gondolas. The fashion reportedly owed much to the Venetian husband’s desire to make sure his wife didn’t travel far while he was away, the same concern that motivated the Chinese to bind their women’s feet.

Among sixteenth-century Venetian prostitutes, the vogue for the stiltlike shoes was carried to absurd lengths. Eventually, high heels were proscribed by law, because of the high death-rate resulting from ladies of the night tripping and falling to their deaths.

Henry VIII initiated the vogue for wide-tied shoes in England, presumably to hide his gout-swollen feet. Shoes soon grew to such widths that Parliament passed a law limiting the width of a shoe to six inches.

That European lawmakers have historically taken such an oppressive interest in their subjects’ footwear can be partly explained by the way in which fashion was dictated in earlier centuries. To a great extent, the king himself was often the trend-setter, the aristocracy was expected to follow suit, and the peasantry was forbidden to emulate their betters.

Many monarchs opted for shoes that would best veil their physical shortcomings. If the fashion didn’t catch on naturally, well, laws could guarantee its implementation. For instance, the custom among men of wearing high-heeled shoes at the court of Louis XIV grew out of the Sun King’s desire to mask his diminutive stature.

Compared to modern footgear, the shoes of earlier centuries were, for the most part, highly uncomfortable. It wasn’t until the development of woven stockings in the seventeenth century that footwear could be made snug-fitting and shaped to the foot.

To give you an idea of the crudity of earlier shoes, it wasn’t until the invention in 1818 of the left-shoe last and the right-shoe last that the left shoe was constructed differently from the right shoe. Prior to that, either shoe could be worn on either foot with equal discomfort!

Until the introduction of mass-produced footwear in the nineteenth century, shoes were usually handmade in the cobbler’s shop, with nails or pegs used to bind the sole to the upper. As mechanization set in, machines were devised for sewing shoes together. By 1900, most footwear was being made, at least in part, by machine.

The first shoe manufactured in the United States was the handiwork of one Thomas Beard, a Mayflower pilgrim, who nailed together the first pair of American shoes in 1628. At that time, the colonists also learned how to make animal-hide moccasins from the Indians, and the moccasins became so popular in the mother country that the colonies began exporting moccasins to England as early as 1650. America’s first factory for mechanized shoe production was established in Lynn, Massachusetts in 1760.

Tanned leather has been a favored material for footwear since the Arabs introduced fine leatherwork in Spain in the eighth century. The leather-making trade of the Spanish Arabs was centered around the city of Cordova, to which we owe the origin of the cordovan, a soft, fine-grained leather shoe. As leather becomes more and more expensive today, shoe manufacturers are turning increasingly to rubber and synthetic materials for their products.

By the way, the average American woman now buys about five pairs of shoes each year, and the average man, about two pairs, as a rule men’s shoes last longer and remain in fashion longer than women’s footwear.

Each model of a modern shoe is manufactured in some 150 sizes, with length designated by a number and width by a letter. But a size ten shoe is not ten inches long, so where does the number come from? Believe it or not, it stands for ten barleycorns!

The English king Edward II decreed in 1324 that an inch was equal to three average-sized barleycorns laid end to end. The normal shoe was declared to measure thirty-nine barleycorns, and this size, for some reason or other, was designated with the number 13. Other sizes were graded from this standard, with one barleycorn difference between each successive size.

Today, the foot-measuring system used in England is one size different from the American system in both length and width. In metric countries, one size indicates a difference of about two-thirds of a centimeter.

Speaking of shoe size, the largest pair of shoes ever made, apart from those specially built for elephantiasis sufferers, were a colossal size forty-two, built for a Florida giant named Harley Davidson. (Yes, it’s the name of a British motorcycle manufacturer.) Let’s see, a size forty-two equals thirty-nine barleycorns plus twenty-nine, for a total length of some twenty-two and one-half inches!

The average person has literally thousands of styles to choose from today, from the modern machine-stitched leather shoe or the rubber-soled sneaker to such ancient favorites as the sandal, the clog, the platform shoe, and the pump. The pump is thought to owe its name to the early use of the shoe for ceremonies of “pomp.” Footwear ranges in price from rubber thongs selling for less than a dollar to mink-lined golf shoes, with eighteen-carat gold ornamentation and ruby-tipped gold spikes, sold in England for some $6,500 a pair.

The U.S. Patent Office has on file a design for boots with pockets, for use by nudists. A bit outlandish? Well, if the shoe fits, wear it!