Friday, June 29, 2018

Duckbills and Bear's Paw: Broad toed shoes

When it became passé to wear long toed shoes in the 16th century and the fad for hose with leather soles passed, boots and shoes became the new vogue. After 1490 the shape of shoes changed to become very broad. At first the new style of shoe looked like a duck's bill and hence the Mary Janes of the time was known as “duck's bill.” These shoes had sufficient volume to accommodate each toe with a separate compartment.

Later in 1510 the shoe changed again to resemble a bear's paw. Known also as a Scarpine, the shoe fastened with a strap over the instep and the upper covered the toes only. By 1540 the shoe covered the entire foot and had fine cuts in the leather. These were often lined with soft fur and sometimes silk. Worn originally by the privileged classes the shoe exhibited the development of craftsmanship with a hard sole combined with a very soft upper.

A popular style at the time was brightly coloured tights and men would sport their bear's paw in the full knowledge that as the foot moved, the underlying skin or tights could be observed with the open and closing of the leather slits. The fine fur was considered to represent pubic hair and the ribbons of leather the labia of female genitalia.

The fashion is thought to encapsulate the emergence of the Cult of the Virgin Mary. If so, this would be every bit and certainly more overt than the hidden messages spoken off in Dan Brown’s best seller, The Da Vinci Code. The style was popular in the late fifteenth and part of the sixteenth century and lasted approximately 100 years.

The shoe style was prolific during the reign of Henry VIII (1491-1547) and there was even a military version of the bear's paw. The shoes caused people to walk with a waddle.

Eventually the practice of wearing these shoes was outlawed by Henry's daughter, Mary I (1516 -1558). Bloody Mary wanted to marry a catholic and was keen not to upset the Pope some authorities believe the breadth of men’s shoes became of concern as they were worn broader and broader and the association with the Virgin Mary of obvious alarm to the patriarch of the church. No law has ever been found but it was thought to be in existence and shoe breadth was limited to six inches across the ball of the foot. The popularity of the Bear’s Paw soon dwindled and by 1560 the style for slightly pointed toes had returned in fashion.

Bear’s paw shoes, featured in a subplot of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Aging lothario, Malvolio was lampooned wearing brightly coloured tights to attract the play's heroine. Sumptuary Laws (laws on clothing) in Tudor England were considered very important. These laws and taxes were enacted by Henry VIII to keep the different classes separate. He wanted to be able to tell at a glance where his subject stood socially by the clothes they wore. During his reign violation of these laws could result in loss of property, title or in the cases of the lower class, death.

Baldwin FE 1926 Sumptuary legislation and personal regulation in England John Hopkin Press
Lake NC 1954 The problem with footwear The Chiropodist 9:8 245
Strutt J 1970 The dress and habits of the people of England Vol II London : Rewood Press Ltd.
Wright T 1922 The romance of the shoe being the history of shoemaking London: Farncombe & Sons

Reviewed 29/06/2018

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