Zeitgeist means a sign of the times and shoe fashions are not determined by chance alone, but by the times and technology we live in. That is as true today, as it ever was. No one can be 100% sure when our ancestors started wearing shoes but we remain the only species to have prolonged bipedal gait and, to date, no other mammal has yet evolved, to make shoes.
Discovery of awls and needles made from bone or flint, marked the first milestone in the development of bespoke footwear. Estimated to be around 60k years ago, our ancestors started making rough shoes to acclimatise themselves to their changing environment. During the Upper Palaeolithic era (40k- 25k years ago), needles with eyes become precision tools used for sewing skins and furs. A long-held belief is the sandal was the first shoe, although that remains unverified, but there are evidence sandals were worn about 10,000 years ago which coincides with the Neolithic Age (or New Stone Age). Earlier footprints speculatively indicate the presence of shoes before this time, but because animal and vegetable materials rarely survived, archaeological evidence is scant.
Shoes dating to 7.5k year-ago, surprisingly demonstrate a range of styles that would not be out place in a modern shoe store. Some had pointed toes others rounded, and all appeared with decorative flourishes. Even then, shoes had taken on a social ritual, the knowledge of which indicated, breeding, status and personality. Preferred hides were prioritised according to the more revered elements of the animals such as swiftness and courage. To the true believers these held magical powers. Nothing seems to have changed if we can give credence to some of today’s marketing rhetoric. By 6.5k years ago, there was clear evidence sown animal hides were used in robust footwear as worn by Otzi the Iceman. Shoe finds come from a wide variety of geographical locations (including America, China, Egypt and Mesopotamia) supporting the theory shoe styles were spontaneous innovations made from available resources and consistent with the development of local crafts.
It took until the Romans before the next step in footwear evolution. During the Bronze Age, the Etruscans had discovered how to make small brass tacks which the Roman sandal makers cleverly incorporated into the soles of their military sandals. This secured not only a better bond between the upper and sole but also gave the sandal traction. A better shod army marched further across rougher terrain, and the Empire expanded beyond any other. When the supply chain from Roman became impractical local shoemakers were introduced to Roman shoemaking and vegetable tanning. Parochial artisans soon incorporated their local shoe making skills to further embellish and extend the range of shoes available. Often triumphant Roman soldiers celebrated their return to Rome by substituting bronze tacks with gold and silver in their highly decorated shoes. After the Fall of the Empire, these local shoemakers carried on the Roman traditions keeping the trades alive. Other examples in history, of how one culture superimposed itself upon another include: the Moorish influence on Cordoba (Spain) and the introduction of quality leathers; and the Mongol invasions with archer horseman wearing heels. Henceforth, the privileged classes of Europe indulged their superiority by wearing sumptuous clothing and heeled shoes. Many regents became tanners by trade including William the Conqueror. Shoes became symbols, serving to indicate standards of conduct as well as emotional states.
The three important functions of shoes were: decoration, modesty and protection. Long been debated, as to what came first, with the common consensus it was protection, yet the evidence to support this hypothesis is scant. Modesty as a concept, is also comparatively new in the history of the west, and has no more linage than a couple of millennium. This leaves the primary function of footwear as decoration. Decoration as we know beautifies bodily appearance, attracting admiring glances and fortifies self-esteem. Simply put shoes, outwardly represented a very important non-verbal sign of gender, presence, and personality. This truly made the role of shoemakers and shoe designers, very important.
According to Freud we became seeing beings and clothing provided the safest distance to assess a stranger. Many of the early Christian converts in Roman Times were sandal makers. Frequently disinherited by their families they worked by night to make and sell sumptuous sandals. This conveniently left them daylight hours to spread the gospel.
In the 11th century, Fulk le Réchin, (you have to watch how you say that especially with cheap dental adhesive) was a courtier in Anjou, France. By all accounts, he was a bad tempered, quarrelsome fellow and according to Rossi, suffered painful bunions and ingrown toenails. He commissioned his cordwainer to craft him a designer pair of shoes to accommodate these deformities. The clever shoemaker came up with poulaines – triangular shoes with long extension beyond the toes. The belle figure was nicknamed ‘Cornadus’ or horned one, as he strutted about the court. Now whether this is fact or fiction, no one knows but something very strange did happened in the 11th century. Across Europe, the length of men’s shoes got longer and longer until they were 24 inches longer than the foot. Despite papal laws to prevent lower classes from wearing poulaines, the fashion continued unabated for another four hundred years. No clear explanation has ever been proffered to explain this strange phenomenon.
Modern scholars acknowledge, the Influence of Islam on European culture at this time, and believe it formed the basis for European Chivalry and Courtly Love. These conventions taught young men to sublimate their desires and channel their energies into socially useful behaviour. To do otherwise, might threatened social stability especially at a time when the feudal lords and knights were engaged in the Crusades.
European courtly love flourished in the early 12th century and high-minded ideals of true romance were spread throughout when troubadours sang openly of love’s joys and heartbreaks in daringly personalised terms, extolling the ennobling effects of the lover’s’ selfless devotion. Troubadour’s songs promoted a love yearned for, and at times rewarded by, the solace of every delight of the beloved except physical possession by sexual union. The relationship was always illicit i.e. the woman was usually older, the spouse of another, often a lord or patron, and consummation was not possible. Could it possibly be there was a connection to long toed shoes?
Young men stuffed their long-toed shoes with moss and grass and under the circumstances, with no stretch of the imagination, a 24" long extension on the end of each foot, could be put to very practical use. Small hawk bells were sewn on the end of the shoe to audibly indicate, the wearer was interested in sexual frolic. Two "intimate ceremonies" of courtship were commonly practised. Woman worship (or domnei) was where the would-be suitor gazed on the partly or fully undressed lady; and naked courting couples were allowed to lie side by side sometimes separated by only a pillow. Kissing and embracing were encouraged but the lovers proved their depth of love by avoiding sexual intercourse. These behaviours were highly sensual and carnal and at a time in history when married couples were parted or marriage was delayed, masturbation provided the perfect solution. By the same token, heavy petting provided a practical form of birth control especially when neither religious nor civil authorities rarely interfered with women’s business. Breaking these taboos reinforced the strength and drive for sexual pleasure which as we know, transcends any moral precept hence promiscuous sex among the privileged classes in Europe became prevalent. In Occidental Society, long toed shoes may have provided the ideal means of birth control and later provide protection from sexually transmitted disease. A historical corollary, if required, was foot binding in Oriental Society, and at precisely the same time, the bound (Lotus) foot became incorporated into sexual practice.
Crown heads were the fashion doyens of the time and inter marriage between countries (or courts) the main reason for change of costume. One fashion was superimposed upon another with a trickle down to ensure courtiers and courtesans were kept à la mode. This languid fashion exchange meant costume took many years to change. Syphilis has long been thought to be a disease introduced to Europe in the 15th century (carried back by Christopher Columbus’s crew). However, most authorities now accept treponemal disease existed in Europe prior to this time and was spread by sexual contact. The presence of the pox and the knowledge of its transmission gave reason to influence sexual practises.
The outcome of untreated neurosyphilis is tabes dorsalis, characterised by a progressive locomotor ataxia (due to loss of proprioception); a sensory ataxia causes a wide based, "high-stepping" gait. A further complication of neurosyphilis is general paresis caused by brain damage which presents as impaired mental function with personality disorders including grandiose delusions. Was it a coincidence poulaines caused fashionable courtiers to adopt a wide based, high stepping gait (similar to advanced tabes dorsalis)?.
About this time too, European courts were introduced to the Court Jester (or professional fool). Leaving Willeford to let us to ponder: "When the king was a syphilitic semi-imbecile, a jester even more grotesque may have served as a useful stage prop, disarming criticism by making the king look more nearly normal by comparison and thus making the make-believe of kingship possible." In any event shoe makers continued to craft long toed shoes.
Towards the end of the 15th century, the fashion for long toed shoes became passé, almost overnight. An absence of written documentation means the reasons remain unclear, but from contemporary paintings, the only evidence available, the style was quickly replaced by shoes which were so broad across the ball of the foot as to boast of individual compartments for each toe. The podiatrist’s delight was called the Duck Bill or Bears Paws.
By this time, a more virulent form of syphilis was in pandemic across Europe, Russia, China, India and Africa. Initially physicians were helpless and refused to treat the suffering leaving them to barbers, bath attendants and quacks (many of which were corn cutters). As we know, another complication of neurosyphilis is Charcot foot where trophic ulceration decimates the sole of the foot. Decreased sensation and loss of ability to feel temperature, pain or trauma, follows, leaving the feet insensate and unprotected. What better way to protect them than encasing them within the Bears Paw. The fashion prevailed for another two hundred years which coincidently happen to mirror the worst of the syphilis epidemics. Could it possibly be these Tudor Moon Boots, were the first orthopaedic shoes?
By the end of the 15th century, the Italian city states like Florence had become the centre of world trade. Fine goods were in abundance and local craftsmen made merry. To show off the wealth of their rich husbands, successful merchant’s wives wore platform shoes (chopines), lifting them off the ground, to highlight their rich sumptuous costume. Quickly the fashion for taller platforms became vogue until they were 24 inches high. Walking required two servants for support, (or at least a silver top walking stick), and rarely did the lady ever travel outside without a sedan chair. The fashion came to an abrupt end in 1519 after it was discovered more and more injuries were reported particularly among pregnant fashionista. The term miscarriage originally is thought to relate to falling over platform shoes. Cobblers soon discovered the shoe became more stable and easier to walk by carving out the forefoot section of the platform leaving the heel elevated.
The Medici’s were a particularly powerful family throughout the Renaissance, and had made their fortune through banking and commerce. Catherine di Medici was born in the same year sumptuary laws prevented chopines from being worn. As an adult, she was petite but despite her small stature became a giant in European history. The young teenage Catherine married the future king of France but was widowed early. For the duration of her lifetime, she had a tremendous influence of the French way of life. Not all good, but she did arrive in Paris wearing high heeled mules which instantly took the attention of the fashion conscious and became vogue for both women and men. The fashion remained popular for about fifty years before it was considered déclassé. This is the first time a particular piece of costume had been associated with a living person and many believe this marks the beginning of women’s fashion. Some women still wore them but by this time the style was more associated with “depraved and dissolute women”. Misogynistic medicos have never been able to forgive them.
Throughout the Middle Ages shoe makers were industrious trades people keen to follow the fads of their patrons and quick to form unions gaining themselves reputations for being socially rebellious. During the 17th century shoe makers were often depicted satirically in fairy tales as goblin like change agents sometimes with naughty, or ulterior motives.
By the 17th century boots were once again part of military attire and soon became fashionable across Europe. Boots were distinctively men's fashion and worn outside the trousers in salons as well as on the dance floor. High boots were first soaked in water then allowed to dry on the leg. The flexion of the knee made them ideal for horse riding but once dismounted the horsemen walked with stiffened legs and a distinctive swaggering gait. This was considered very macho at the time. Charles, I, suffered osteomalacia (rickets) as a child and learned to walk with the aid of callipers cleverly concealed into his boots made by the Royal shoemaker. Gentlemen wore light coloured boots with red heels and the edges of the soles stained red. The Cavalier boot had a very wide top which could be turned down for town wear, showing silk or coloured leather lining. The width of the leg had increased and the boots were worn wide across the toes. Toes became square and this fashion remained popular till the end of the century.
During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries boots surpassed shoes as the fashionable footwear for men. Now more refined, styles were trimmer and worn with turned down tops. The two-tone boots were lined in brown which contrasted with the outer black leather of the rest of the boot. Two-tone top boots were worn below the knee for outdoors with tans and pale shades popular with the gentry. In the Regency Period, Dandies like, George Beau Brummell had his patent leather boots polished with champagne. The Duke of Wellington instructed his shoemaker, Hoby of St. James's Street, London, to modify his Hessian boots and make them suitably hard-wearing for riding, yet smart enough for informal evening wear. The master bootmakers created the Wellington. After he defeated Napoleon in 1815, he became a national hero and the wellington boot proved so popular they were worn by patriotic civilians eager to emulate their war hero. Talk about celebrity endorsement.
The Wellington also became standard cavalry issue to Union troops, during the American Civil War. However, unscrupulous contractors supplied below par footwear made of reinforced carboard and many horse soldiers suffered deep cuts to their feet. A Chiropodist General to the US cavalry was appointed at this time. After hostilities, troops were sent to the Western frontier to fight in the Indian Wars. Unfortunately, due to the surplus of shoddy boots, they were issued with inferior footwear and as a result priority was given to skilled leather workers from Germany and other European Countries to craft "kips", which were more hard-wearing boots. By the end of the 19th century a more practical cowboy boot was beginning to emerge as a distinctive style. Life has its ironies, by the time of the Hollywood cowboy featured, the preferred boot style was not a wellington but a Tejas. The significance, being as The Duke of Wellington championed his boot, his nemesis Emperor Napoleon wore Tejas.
In recent modern history, the three most important influences on footwear have been: Hollywood and the mass media; World Wars; and The Space Race. In the 20th century, resurgence of nostalgia came first with the Hollywood epics ensuring millions of the world’s populations could not just see but also wear the fashions of their icons. This was the beginning of today’s fashion industry. Changing Theatres of War enforced new developments in footwear, first with mass production, then right and left fittings, with further innovations to allow foot comfort in changing global settings. Finally, and arguably the greatest singular influence on today’s footwear industry is, the aftermath of the Space Race and the Age of the new polymer. Human beings had to put someone on the moon before they could have ever make the shoes that may just one day, allow us all to run a marathon in under two hours.