The etymology origin of the word sandal is thought to be Persian, but thongs have been around since the last Ice Age (10,000 years ago,) and possibly before that. The absence of archeological finds makes it impossible to be more precise. The development of crafts, like weaving promoted common use of foot attire. Soles were made from almost anything that was available including leaves, bark, wood, fish skin, rice straw, or animal hide, and sandal thongs were made from vegetable material then later from animal skins. From the beginning sandals were available in several designs i.e. toe loops, foot loops and ankle straps. The more sophisticated contained all three.
The popular belief thongs protected feet from hard surfaces and extreme climate is unlikely as footwear in early societies was an elaborate form of decoration worn to demonstrate rank. Stone Age Sandals were made from tree bark had no uppers and were retained by thongs to the first and fifth toes. Not particularly robust, the crude footwear was required to be replaced regularly. Examples were found around the world including Australia but Indigenous tribes seldom wore sandals to protect their feet. Most went unshod with only some tribes from the Northern Territory of Australia and adjoining desert country, known to wear Stone Age style sandals. Other foot coverings were more common for ceremonial purposes, such as shoes made from emus’ feathers.
The oldest surviving examples of papyrus sandals date approximately to 1,500 BC. At this time, it was wealthy men and their immediate family who were allowed to wear shoes. Costume went with privilege and was not common practice outside the upper echelons of Ancient Civilizations. The Queens of Assyria wore embroidered slippers similar to 19th century pantoffles. Bejeweled and heeled thongs were also common among the privileged. Sandals were worn longer than the foot with the toe section bent backwards to allow the wearer to walk. When the Phoenicians in Syria (2300 BC) discovered how to dye leather, distinctive colours became a badge of authority and Babylonian men & women wore leather sandals. Affluent society Assyrians preferred fabric or soft leather and as time passed artisans developed more ornate designs.
In Egypt, Queens of the Nile, like Queen Hat-Shep-Sut (about 1552 BC) wore bejeweled sandals and made wearing sandals trendy which fostered the sandal trade in Egypt. The Ankh (symbol for life) is thought by many experts to represent a flattened thonged sandal. The word 'nkh” was used to describe the section of the sandal where a toe thong was attached and is composed of the same consonants as the word for "life".
It took until the Greek civilization before the sandal became an item of costume which celebrated the aesthetic. Greeks valued their feet and took good care of them adapting footwear for every type of activity. Designs emphasised beauty and elegance, refinement, extravagance and rich ornamentation, especially for women. The arrangement of the Greek sandal straps varied but usually consisted of a broad band across the front of the foot, and a thong between the toes. Ironically sumptuary laws prevented women from wearing more than three items of clothing, so going barefoot was common for females. Shoes were used to identify station with the height of the sole and the colour orientation indicating the social class of the wearer. Courtesans wore footwear made from soft leather dyed white, green, lemon or yellow. Betrothed girls and young brides wore sandals made from dyed white leather. Women of ill repute (or salmakides) wore krepis and would attract client’s attention with their distinctive deportment. Hip wiggling created a "clack" sound when their thongs hit against stone audibly flaunting their sexual charms. Some adopted the Egyptian custom and had “Follow Me,” carved on the soles to leave a telltale trail in the sand for the more shy punters.
The Romans continued the sandal tradition but wearing sandals became a privilege reserved for Citizens of Rome and women and slaves were prevented from wearing shoes. When, later in the Empire ostentatious footwear became the social norm, sumptuary laws prevented sandal makers from making fashionable footwear and the craft of sandal making became clandestine frequently harbouring early Christian converts. The expansion of the Empire meant shoe making skills were introduced and incorporated into subsumed foreign cultures. After the fall of the Roman Empire the sandal making was almost lost to Europe and only rediscovered in the 20th century.
What about Clerical Sandals?
As the Christian Empire developed the New Testament made much of sandal evangelism and often as an act of attrition priests performed their offices, barefoot or in clerical sandals. The hierarchy of the church, on the other hand, continued to dress sumptuously. "Sovereign's law" promulgated by Charlemagne (742-814 AD) required clerics to wear sandals when celebrating mass. Many medieval priests and Franciscan monks wore wooden sandals as a sign of disregard for material luxury. During the pilgrimages many went barefoot out of choice, or to do penance for their sins, whilst others wore sandals as a token gesture.
What’s with military sandals ?
Alexander the Great (356 BC -323 BC), conquered half the world with barefoot armies and Greek warriors (or hoplites) wore body amour with heavy leg covers but no shoes, Other civilizations such as the Assyrians had adapted flat thongs for their soldiers (1370BC) but these offered only minimal protection to the foot. Assyrian cavalry of the 8th & 7th centuries B.C. E. wore laced boots (or greaves) which reached to below the knee. Colour became more important in military footwear to distinguish rank as dying became more sophisticated. It was during the New Kingdom (1540-1070 BC), Egyptian soldiers began to wear woven leather sandals which offered some protection to their feet from weaponry. It took until the Etruscan Civilization and the introduction of brass tacks before the upper of the sandal could be securely attached to the sole of the thong. The Romans capitalized on this innovation and added metal tacks to their caligula. The more robust footwear allowed the Romans to travel greater distances and many experts believe the primary reason why the Roman Empire became so big. The Distance from the ends of the empire was so far, they could no longer rely upon supplies from Rome and instead adopted local footwear and trained local craftsmen in the art of sandal making. Caches of Roman sandals found in York reveal two millennia ago, people had feet and foot problems consistent with modern feet.
In the modern theatre of war sandals can still be found. Mine sandals (approx. 35 x 70 x 13 cm) prevent accidental mine activation and allow soldiers to cross or work within a minefield. Most anti personal (AP) mines are triggered by pressure caused by the weight of a person stepping on the mine. By distributing body-weight over a larger surface area on any type of terrain significantly reduces pressure points. The stepping board is made of reinforced plastic which in turn entraps interconnected cushions of air. The upper is equipped with special straps to harness the soldier's shoe to the sandal. For extra sensitive surfaces, there is an emergency inflation mechanism attached to a compact CO2 cylinder which can be quickly inflated or deflated. Mine sandals have no metal parts, which can interfere with the operation of metal detectors, and or cause the activation of magnetic mines.
What brought them back into fashion?
Hollywood was the main reason humble sandal made a fashion comeback in the 20th Century. Millions of people were influenced by the new phenomenon, cinema. As big screen cinematography developed and long shots featured then attention to detailed costume detail became paramount. Salvatore Ferragamo among other celebrity shoe makers made sandals for Hollywood’s biblical epics. First the stars then their fans craved to wear the new fashions and as the century progressed and hemlines rose, with greater emphasis placed on the leg and foot.
In the 1930s, Ferragamo introduced the wedge heel and a metal arch support which allowed heeled shoes to be made without toe caps. The Peekaboo style or toe cleavage, became all the rage when the plastics industry developed colourful nail varnish. New pin up girls flaunted their charms in long legs and heeled sandals.
Designers continued to experiment with fabric, raffia and plastics to make sandals for the fashionista and by the early fifties, the introduction of the stiletto meant no fashion conscious female foot could go without a pair of back less sandals exposing more foot flesh than had ever been seen. Thongs became the string bikini of the shoe world.
Why are they so popular, now?
Espadrilles were worn in antiquity but soon became the bohemian celebrities shoe of choice in the mid-20th century. Soon no discerning holiday maker to the sunny shores of Spain, Portugal and France would be without thongs made from natural materials.
After the Second World War and the introduction of affordable package tours to the Mediterranean, the demand for sand shoes by the fifties saw the new plastic industry on the lookout for ideas. The first televised Olympics were held in Melbourne (1956) and the global village caught sight of Japanese swimmers wearing getas (traditional sandals). An astute entrepreneur captured the moment by mass producing cheap plastic sandals (flip flops). Now every suitcase contained a pair. and the humble single/double plugger became an Australian icon.
21st century jet setters prefer to move effortlessly whilst in transit. The threat of terrorism and need for greater scrutiny meant more intrusive investigation which inevitably required removal of footwear in public. No self-respecting fashionista wanted to divest their shoes for all to see so fashion dictates turned to slop on shoes made from synthetic polymers. Sartorial eloquence was assured with bling clad Brazilian, Havaianas (flip-flops).
Why is there a medical backlash?
The thong may not suit everyone and at best, provides only limited protection to the feet. Whilst extreme sport sandals do offer better support and can match exercise shoes these are more expensive. Condemnation of the thong continues by the foot police remains and many would demand a Government Health warning on every pair sold. However, there is no evidence to suggest thongs when worn in moderation, adversely influence foot function. People coping with chronic disease which impinges on the lower leg and foot, are better served with comfortable shoes, otherwise thongs which are one of the oldest shoe designs remain popular.