A Step Through Time - The History of Shoes
by Elizabeth Pamboukian on Nov 12, 2020
It’s hard to imagine what life was like before shoes were invented. Shoes and clothing started as a real and practical need to protect ourselves from the outdoors but this seemingly human necessity quickly turned into a growing industry in which design is just as important (if not more important) as function. Although the main qualities of footwear and even some styles have remained the same, let’s take a journey through the long and interesting history of shoes.
The First Shoes
Believe it or not, shoes have a 40,000-year history! From archeological and paleo archeological evidence, historians believe that shoes were invented in the Middle Paleolithic period. The world’s oldest example of a well-preserved leather shoe was discovered in an Armenian cave in 2008 and dates back to about 3,500 B.C.E. The 5,500 year-old shoe is remarkably modern with the same foundations as shoes designed and created today. Even the well-known shoe designer Manolo Blahnik notes, “It is astonishing how much this shoe resembles a modern shoe!”
During the age of antiquity, the first sandals emerged in ancient Egypt and were made from palm leaves, papyrus, and leather. These sandals were stretched and tied at the end of the foot – just like modern strappy sandals. In Greece and Rome, clothes and shoes became a symbol of power and wealth so sandals were worn according to a person’s social status. For example, the more laces a sandal had and the thinner the sole, the higher the rank of a Roman soldier.
Across the globe in China, foot binding became increasingly popular for women during the Tang Dynasty, tightly wrapping the feet of young girls to prevent growth. The tiny dainty shoes were mostly constructed in silk or cotton and richly embroidered with fine metallic threads. Back then, the ideal for women’s feet was modeled after the lotus blossom and small feet were considered more beautiful and “marriage material” – but the crippling practice left many women barely able to walk.
The Middle Ages
In the Middle Ages, the high heel was invented to further elevate wearers from unclean streets (plumbing was limited back then, yuck) but only worn by men at first. Light and comfortable canvas espadrilles were also invented and worn in warmer climates. The first real footwear fashion, the pointed shoe, inspired by gothic architecture and called “poulaines,” became a widespread gothic trend popularized by aristocrats who also wore pointed hats to match. Perhaps one of the silliest and most fascinating trends in medieval fashion, the pointiest and longest shoes were of course reserved for nobility who could afford to ridiculously wander around in footwear ostensibly designed for tumbling down the street. These shoes were made from various materials such as leather and velvet and also sometimes had an open back which was considered pretty sexy back then because it showed off the ankle…scandalous.
A detail of a 15th-century illuminated manuscript showing servers and their pointy poulaines.
Early Modern History
Before early modern history, fashion, especially footwear, was mostly dictated by men as they were the first to wear heels and their legs were considered to be the standard of beauty. This was also because of the fact that although women also wore fancy shoes, they were often hidden under long skirts.
During the Renaissance, shoes evolved from vertical lines to become more horizontal. Now, the richer and more powerful the wearer the more extreme and broad the squared toe became. However, while square toed shoes were prevalent during this time, round toed shoes also began to emerge, considered more practical for children. Meanwhile, women began to wear extremely tall platforms called “chopines.” Both genders also wore slip-on indoor slides with a slightly flared heel known as the modern mule.
In the 18th century, the mule further evolved in shape and was made from luxurious materials such as silk and decorative embroidery. Pointe, or ballet shoes also originated from mules during this time.
English Pair of Shoes, 1820 (V&A Museum)
From royal paintings, historians also know that Baroque and Rococo men wore fancy red heels to show off their status – Christian Louboutin was not the first.
Louis XIV in red heeled shoes, painted by Hyacinthe Rigaud in 1701
The biggest breakthrough in the footwear industry came during the Industrial Revolution when a modern sewing machine specifically for footwear was invented and began mass production. Also in the 19th century, shoes were finally customized to be made for the left or right foot. Can you imagine having just a one size fits all shoe? The 19th century served as a launching pad for footwear as we know it today, modernizing both the design and production.
The 20th century saw a rise in consumer demand; as our lifestyles changed, we needed more shoes. Synthetic materials were used to meet the fast everchanging trends of the modern era. With the increasing number of working women, high-heel trends began to change into a low kitten heel style for everyday wear. However, sports shoes had the greatest impact on the footwear industry. In 1917, “Converse” was invented for basketball players. Since then, the ideal shoe has evolved to value comfort, style, inventiveness, and creativity.
The history of footwear reveals strict divisions of social classes and the changing of style throughout time. Just like fashion, we can observe certain shoe styles and designs that return in modern designs. Unlike today, early fashion changed every 10 to 100 years, not every season. However, today we live in a free society where we can follow whatever fashion trends our hearts desire. Amazing innovations also allow us to have the highest quality, most fashionable footwear – a whole closet of shoes!