Where did Shoes come from?

Spanish cave drawings from more than 15,000 years ago show humans with animal skins or furs wrapped around their feet. The body of a well-preserved “ice-man” nearly 5,000 years old wears leather foot coverings stuffed with straw. Shoes, in some form or another, have been around for a very long time. The evolution of foot coverings, from the sandal to present-day athletic shoes that are marvels of engineering, continues even today as we find new materials with which to cover our feet. Has the shoe really changed that much though? We are, in fact, still wearing sandals – the oldest crafted foot covering known to us.

Moccasins are still readily available in the form of the loafer. In fact, many of the shoes we wear today can be traced back to another era. The Cuban heel may have been named for the dance craze of the 1920s, but the shape can be seen long before that time.  Platform soles, which are one of the most recognizable features of footwear in the 1970s and 1990s were handed down to us from 16th century chopines. Then, high soles were a necessity to keep the feet off of the dirty streets. Today, they are worn strictly for fashion’s sake. If one can deduce that basic shoe shapes have evolved only so much, it is necessary to discover why this has happened. It is surely not due to a lack of imagination – the colors and materials of shoes today demonstrate that.
Looking at shoes from different parts of the world, one can see undeniable similarities. While the Venetians were wearing the chopine, the Japanese balanced on high-soled wooden shoes called geta.Though the shape is slightly different, the idea remains the same. The Venetians had no contact with the Japanese, so it is not a case of imitation.

Even the mystical Chinese practice of foot-binding has been copied (though to a lesser extent) in our culture. Some European women and men of the past bound their feet with tape and squashed them into too-tight shoes. In fact, a survey from the early 1990s reported that 88 percent of American women wear shoes that are too small! As one examines the history of footwear, both in the West and in other parts of the world, the similarities are apparent. Though the shoemakers of the past never would have thought to pair a sandal with a platform sole, our shoe fashions of today are, for the most part, modernized adaptations of past styles.

The simplest way to protect feet was to grab what was handy – bark, large leaves and grass – and tie them under the foot with vines. In hot countries this developed into the sandal made from woven palms, grass or plant fibers and attached to the foot with toe loops. Examples of early sandals have been found in Japan, Polynesia and America. Few early shoes have survived. Fragments of Bronze Age footwear have been found in excavations but not enough to determine styles. But from the Roman times onwards many shoes have survived suggesting that there were many more shoe styles than one would expect. Romans arrived in Britain wearing the military sandal, called the caliga, which exposed the toes, had a lattice – patterned upper, front lacing and a heavily nailed sole. Other styles were the calceus and the gallica, both with a closed toe – a style more suited to the British weather. After the Romans left, Britain began producing its own styles, usually a closed toe leather shoe with an oval or round toe shape. The ankle shoe was popular in the 9th Century.

Footwear styles continued to change during the Medieval age. The length of one’s toe was an indication of status. The King and his court had shoes with the largest toes. This style wasn’t worn by women. The ankle shoe remained popular, it was usually side laced with three pairs of holes. The pointed toe disappeared at the end of the Middle Ages and was replaced by round and square toe shapes. At first a sensible size, toes became larger and larger. During the reign of Henry VIII soles reaching 6½ inches wide were common and known as foot bags.

After 1500, a blunt pointed toe returned, followed by a round toe in the 1590s. It’s about this time that heels emerge. By the end of Elizabeth I’s reign heels grow to 2-3 inches, all footwear is made straights and sides are opened up. During the reign of Charles I, flamboyant knee boots were popular. In the 17th Century, men wore shoes and mules with a square toe, often blocked and domed. Women decided that a pointed toe was more feminine. An important innovation in 1660 was the buckle to fasten a shoe. Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary of 22nd January 1660, “This day I began to put on buckles to my shoes”. At first popular with men, women eventually wore them too, replacing ribbon latchets with buckle latchets .

In the 18th Century, women’s shoes reflected the elaborate patterns of their dresses. Men’s shoes became quite plain made of black leather with pointed toes and low heels. Towards the end of the 18th Century and beginning of the 19th Century women’s shoes became lower and lower cut, heels became lower until they disappeared altogether and the pointed toe is replaced by first narrow oval toes and then square toes. Shoes became so dainty made from satin and silks that ribbon ties are added to keep the shoe on the foot. The 19th Century was characterized by the predominance of boots both for men and women. Popular styles were the Blucher boot, cloth boots, the elastic sided boot, the button boot, and the Balmoral boot. Apart from boots, women wore court shoe style shoes in a variety of different materials, from satin and silk to reptile and drawn leathers. Men had a choice between the Oxford shoe, with front lacing and a closed tab and the Derby shoe, with front lacing and an open toe. The 20th Century saw a variety of shoe styles and the rise of the shoe designer. From 1920s bar shoes to 1930s co-respondent two-colour shoes to 1940s utility styles to 1950s brothel creepers to 1960s winklepickers and stiletto heels to 1970s platform soles, shoe designers were prominent throughout the 20th Century. With their increasingly vertiginous heights, crazy combinations of materials, and unimaginable shapes, shoes define who we are and underscore the performative aspect of identity.

Shoes, like all fashion, tell our stories – stories we make up for ourselves or stories we want to tell others. Today, technology and design have taken shoes to never-before-seen elevations: simple stiletto heels have given away to architectonic, ever high heels, covered with embellishments and encrusted with extravagant decorations. They are like modern skyscrapers gone baroque and post modern. As unnatural nd transgressive signifiers of female power and sexuality, high heels have been a perfect fit for fashion photographers. Photographic masters such as Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton made the relationship between heels and sexual power one of their signatures, and today’s generation of great fashion photographers, designers and filmmakers follow their lead. Sandals were the most common footwear in most early civilizations, however, a few early cultures had shoes. In Mesopotamia, (c. 1600-1200 BC) a type of soft shoes were worn by the mountain people who lived on the border of Iran.

The soft shoe was made of wraparound leather, similar to a moccasin. As late as 1850 most shoes were made on absolutely straight lasts, there being no difference between the right and the left shoe. Jan Ernst Matzeliger developed an automatic method for lasting shoes and made the mass production of affordable shoes possible. Lyman Reed Blake was an American inventor who invented a sewing machine for sewing the soles of shoes to the uppers. In 1858, he received a patent for his specialized sewing machine. Patented on January 24, 1871, was Charles Goodyear Jr’s Goodyear Welt, a machine for sewing boots and shoes. An aglet is the small plastic or fiber tube that binds the end of a shoelace (or similar cord) to prevent fraying and to allow the lace to be passed through an eyelet or other opening. This comes from the Latin word for “needle.” The modern shoestring (string and shoe holes) was first invented in England in 1790 (first recorded date March 27). Before shoestrings, shoes were commonly fastened with buckles. The first rubber heel for shoes was patented on January 24, 1899 by Irish-American Humphrey O’Sullivan. O’Sullivan patented the rubber heel which outlasted the leather heel then in use. Elijah McCoy invented an improvement to the rubber heel. The first rubber soled shoes called plimsolls were developed and manufactured in the United States in the late 1800s. In 1892, nine small rubber manufacturing companies consolidated to form the U.S. Rubber Company. Among them was the Goodyear Metallic Rubber Shoe Company, organized in the 1840s in Naugatuck, Connecticut. This company was the first licensee of a new manufacturing process called vulcanization, discovered and patentent Charles Goodyear Vulcanization uses heat to meld rubber to cloth or other rubber components for a sturdier, more permanent bond. On January 24, 1899, Humphrey O’Sullivan received the first patent for a rubber heel for shoes. From 1892 to 1913, the rubber footwear divisions of U.S. Rubber were manufacturing their products under 30 different brand names. The company consolidated these brands under one name. When choosing a name, the initial favorite was Peds, from the Latin meaning foot, but someone else held that trademark. By 1916, the two final alternatives were Veds or Keds, with the stronger sounding Keds being the final choice. Keds were first mass-marketed as canvas-top “sneakers” in 1917. These were the first sneakers. The word “sneaker” was coined by Henry Nelson McKinney, an advertising agent for N. W. Ayer & Son, because the rubber sole made the shoe stealthy or quiet, all other shoes, with the exception of moccasins, made noise when you walked. In 1979, the Stride Rite Corporation acquired the Keds brand.