Shoes retain a unique importance to human beings which even yet defines complete understanding. From the time hominids started to decorate themselves shoes became more than just protective costume with even the earliest archaeological demonstrating individual embellishment. From antiquity onwards footwear became an important status symbol jealously guarded by the ‘well heeled,’ and through to modern history, protected by Sumptuary Laws to prevent upward mobility. Mythologies and folklore abound with reference to material whose significance hinges on the bond which links feet and sex together and according to Rossi ‘feet are sensual objects which often require to be hidden from unwanted attention.' No surprise to learn the word shoe is Anglo Saxon in origin and means to cover furtively.
Bipedalism describes walking on two feet as opposed to all fours (quadripedal gait). No one can be sure when our ancestors took to all twos but it is postulated to be approximately 7.5 million years ago with evidence of tools and language dating back to 2.6 million year ago. The earliest foot fossils exhibited characteristics of both arboreal and terrestrial existence and the transition from 4 legs to 2 is thought to have been quick likely as a pragmatic solution to environmental change. Hominids needed to move around the new grasslands but still with the ability to climb trees. The absence of forestation meant ground surface temperatures had increased and in order to keep the brain cool, hominids stood up. There is clear skeletal evidence to show blood flow to the brain increased significantly during this time. As bipedalism became the norm adaptation of the foot, knee and hip followed leaving hands free to gather and improved sight to hunt.
Unlike other animals, early humans had a weight bearing heel, an inside arch, and big toe for ground leverage. From Homo Rectus to Homo Sapian (an estimated 2 million years) the brain became more complex as walking on two feet influenced musculature and body shape. Experts believe the form and function of buttocks, bosoms; the legs and thighs, tummies, hips and even genitalia were all influenced by walking on two feet. Sigmund Freud, was convinced upright stance led to the frontal display of both primary and secondary sex organs and argued humans had no need to develop other senses when greatest benefit was gained by perfecting sight. The sensory centre which supplies the feet does lie in close proximity to sensory nerves of the genitalia. Experts believe in some people there may be ‘neural print-through’ which causes their feet to become sexually expressive. So for them tickling the feet would be the same as “tickling their fancy.” Covering bare feet and indeed exposing them seems to have a major social significance as the etymology of the word shoe will testify. In the 19th century when Édouard Manet’s painting of Olympia, a reclining courtesan with her shoe half on was first exhibited in Paris there were riots in the street. A little later when George du Maurier’s best selling gothic novel Trilby, was damatised and the play’s heroine, Trilby O'Ferrall exposed her naked feet on stage, audiences erupted in riot.
The general consensus is shoes started to be worn during the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic period or the Old Stone Age (circa 40,000 years ago). If this is true then foot covers would occasionally be used by Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens. This timeline is consistent with development of tools, socialisation, and decoration. Skeletal remains from sites in Russia appear to have foot protection dating to about 27,500 years ago and European rock paintings show animal skins around the foot dating to 15,000 years ago. Finds in North America (10,5000 years ago) include a range of shoes and sandals with fragments of cordage. More recent finds are footprints in a cave site at Grotte de Fontanet (France) which show a shod foot in a moccasin-like covering.
Clothing serves three main purposes: decoration, modesty and protection. Whilst the latter may appear the most logical it is not supported by history (both ancient and modern). Fig leaf mentality may explain why we covered up, but by far the major reason for clothing was decoration. In those early finds each pair of sandals were distinctly different indicating a desire to wear something distinctive, and decorative which might indicate an instinct for individualism. The essential purpose of decoration was to beautify bodily appearance, so as to attract admiring glances from others and fortify self-esteem. Prior to clothing prehistoric people decorated and scarified their skins to protect themselves from imaginary evil spirits. Gradually these magical patterns were incorporated into clothing as talisman with significant social and spiritual meaning. As our ancestors covered up it meant clothing, particular for heads and feet took on new significance. The Displacement of Effect theory suggests hair, hats and shoes became gender specific.
Remarkably shoes remain unchanged since the beginning and shoe finds from antiquity would not be that out of place in the shop window today. Further biomechanical assessment of the wear marks from early shoe finds confirm people’s feet have not changed over millennium. Our hunter and gatherer ancestors obviously admired the strength and courage of animals and wore their hides next to their skins to harness these qualities. Victors always wore mementos of the vanquished which often included testicles. Remnants of this can still be seen in modern shoes such as the tassels on loafers. Shoes also carried lucky tokens either incorporated into the pattern design or a talisman contained within the shoe. Again these can still be seen in today’s shoes with a lucky penny in penny loafers and brogue shoes.
Clothing provides the safest distance to judge a stranger whereas more intimate relationships rely on the finer features and speech. Privileged classes have always celebrated dress as a mark of rank, occupation and wealth. In Roman Times for example the higher the boot strapping worn by the soldier the more senior their military rank. The same demarcation was seen in WWI – where officers wore boots and enlisted men wore shoes. Throughout history a major preoccupation of the nouveaux riche has always been to try to aspire to the same privileges as the wealthy including wearing the same clothes and shoes were not excluded. Indeed there were sumptuary laws to prevent this and this sartorial trait marks our preoccupation with celebrity.
According to Rossi in his toe curlingly, funny book, ‘The Sexlife of the foot and shoe’ there are nine basic shoe styles, and everything else is made up of a combination of these. Chronologically these are: the Moccasin; the Sandal; the Clog; the Boot; the Monk; the Platform; the Mule; the Pump; and the Oxford. By far the most curious aspect of shoe history for me is footwear in both occidental and oriental societies were probably used in safe sex practice during the Middle Ages and in particular during syphilis epidemics.
Promiscuous sex among the privileged classes was prevalent in the Middle Ages and modern scholars now acknowledge Islam formed the basis for European Chivalry and Courtly Love. In the absence of feudal lords and Knights engaged in the Crusades young men of the court were taught to sublimate their desires and channel their energies into socially useful behaviour. European CL flourished in the early 12th century and the high minded ideals of true romance were spread by troubadours who sang openly of love’s joys and heartbreaks. At precisely the same time men started wearing long toed shoes which as each decade passed got longer and longer and longer. Until they were 24” longer than the foot they covered.
Despite Papal disapproval and sumptuary law to prevent lower classes from wearing poulaines (long toed shoes) the fashion continued unabated for four hundred years. Shoes were stuffed with moss and grass and became phallic with hawk bells sewn on the end, to indicate the wearer was interested in sexual frolics. Masturbation was commonly practised as a form of safe sex and two 24” long dildos would not go a miss. Wearing poulaines caused men to adopt a wide based, high stepping gait and this became the norm for fashionable courtiers. The same pattern is seen in tertiary syphilis. Another innovation at the same time was the Court Jester or professional fool. It is postulated the introduction of the jester was an attempt to draw attention away from the madness associated with late stage syphilis in the Royal Family.
Something similar was happening at exactly the same time in China and from the 11th century onwards young girls (and some boys) had their feet bound from age four until 19 years. For over a thousand years this practice became a right of passage and the Lotus foot (3 inches long) was highly prized in a bride. Foot bindings secured a quality marriage and until recently the reason for foot binding has been unclear. However it walking with smaller step lengths increases muscle tone in the pelvic region and ensures tightness of the vulva. Procreation was considered the highest form of worship in the Toasist society of the 11th the century and anything which enhanced the experience was acceptable. In the presence of syphilis the bound foot was likely used in safe sex.