Monday, May 21, 2018

The colour of shoes : A brief history

In antiquity shoes carried many meanings and were not just symbols of social position they were also considered good luck charms. Appropriate footwear could invoke the favour of gods and avert evil so by the time of the Romans the colour of footwear had really taken on significant meaning. The art of dyeing was age old and people of substance had worn special colours usually with the more rare or expensive reserved for the well heeled. Purple was the most expensive colour die and became exclusive imperial property.

Julius Caesar (101-44 BC) liked gold trimmed, red boots with high heels. Red was the colour worn by the young at the time and it was generally considered incongruous for a man of his advancing years to wear red shoes. The height challenged Caesar defied criticism and continued to wear his favourite shoe with lifts for extra height.

By the end of the Roman republic (509 BC - 43 AD), Roman ladies wore thick soled sandals in exotic colours. The early platforms were decorated with pearls and other gems and often had gold or silver ornaments attached. Patricians preferred purple or green cabatina (simple thongs) whilst the women of Pompeii wore white, red or guilded leather. From Biblical times, victorious Roman soldiers on return to the capital celebrated by substituting the modest bronze nails which held their caligae (sandals) together with gold and silver tacks. Soon a non-military caligae or senatorum became the favourite choice of shoe for senators. Later these were replaced with red boots. During triumphant marches generals wore red Calcei.

Red was always considered to be powerful. Nero, or Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus (AD 37-68), and his wife Poppaea wore silver and golden soled shoes, respectively. The soles were made from poured precious metal and the thongs sparkled with encrustation of rare stones. Perhaps they fell out one day about who should wear what, because it is purported Nero wore golden soled sandals when he kicked Poppaea to death. The fashion for precious metal sandals may have had a practical purpose. Nero was a spend thrift and emptied the treasury. Keen to accumulate wealth at the expense of the citizens he introduced coinage in base metals to recoup the gold and silver. Clever Romans had their precious metal melted and poured as shoe soles.

Men were banned from wearing colourful footwear by Nero’s successor Emperor Lucius Domitius Aurelianus (AD 212-275) and only women could choose materials and colours, freely. Later this latitude was constrained by Emperor Heliogabalus (AD 218-222) who tried to ban women from ornamenting their shoes with gold and jewels. Sumptuary laws and price controls were imposed by subsequent Caesars. Black or white became the preferred colours for senators and pale coloured sandals became the mark of wealth and privilege; this was because the lightening process was lengthy and expensive.

As Christianity developed within the Roman Empire the privilege of wearing imperial colours and insignia were passed onto the clergy. Once in decline, crafts were almost lost but the sartoria of the high clergy now influenced by the Middle and Far East styles, were reawakened and fiercely emulated by the couriers emerging from the Dark Ages. During the Renaissance, rediscovery of the classics brought colour back into vogue and by Victorian times colour became mainstream fashion.

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