As sandals have enjoying yet another fashion resurgence I thought it might be fun to review the curious history of the humble toe thong. Whilst the ancient Greeks were preoccupied with elegance and grace the Romans were ever more pragmatic when it came to their sandals.
Conquering legions wore hobnailed clavata, an Etruscan innovation, which allowed the spreading empire to grow and introduce sandal making to the conquered. Something the Italians have been very good at, ever since. To celebrate a victorious return to Rome, heroes replaced the bronze nails, which held together their military sandals (caligae) with gold or silver tacks. Colour became the distinguishing feature of social status and critical factor for the glitterati. Red was the colour for high magistrates but later became the Emperor's prerogative.
From time to time fancy sandals were banned because they offended Caesar’s favour. Claudius II (AD 37-68) was a spendthrift better known as Nero and wore silver soled shoes. His wife Poppaea had sandals made from poured gold with straps encrusted with rare stones. The effect was dazzling and undeniably sexy. Nero’s indulgencies however brought the empire to the brink of bankruptcy. To save the day he decreed all coins would be forged in base metals and commanded citizens return their old gold and silver coinage to his treasury. Not surprisingly citizens began hoarding but had a weakness for ostentatious footwear. Shoemakers were quick to cash in and would only accept real money. Customers had to trust the shoemaker not to dob them in and consequently shoe making became clandestine with expensive footwear being sold under the counter. Deliveries took place under the cover of night and may in part explain why shoemakers gained a reputation as untrustworthy.
Emperor Heliogabalus (AD 218-222) preferred his shoes decorated with diamonds and other precious stones engraved by the finest artists. He was never seen in the same boots twice but took great exception to patricians wearing ornamented shoes and tried unsuccessfully to stop the fashion.
Emperor Lucius Domitius Aurelianus (AD 270 - 275) was more concerned about men’s shoes and forbade them from wearing red, yellow and green shoes. He did however relent and allowed patricians to choose materials and colours freely. Caesar reserved red and purple for himself and his sons.
Although sumptuary laws and price controls were later imposed by Gaius Valerius Diocletianus (AD 245-313), in AD 301 footwear came in many styles and colours each reflecting class distinctions. The fall of Roman Empire almost saw the end to sandal making but the craft survived and enjoyed a real renaissance in the early 20th century with the emerging Hollywood industries and the popularity of the Biblical epics.
Modern designers like Ferragamo rediscover the ancient designs and put them well and truly on track for today’s fashion conscious.