So what are the origins of the trendy pair of shoes you’ve got lined up on your rack? Apparently, this everyday fashion question is steeped deep in history and has made rather interesting journeys over the centuries. There are several accounts of how footwear became an everyday part of our lives, but the common theme is that shoes were first conceived to protect the feet from environmental elements such as stones, thorns, mud and sharp objects in the terrain. In some early societies they were also an indication of power and status.
Shoe historians categorise the origins in different periods dating back to 40,000 years ago. So we have ancient shoes in the period generally known as Before Christ – some put it at 1550 BC- whereby Roman soldiers wore boots called Calcei, and wealthy ones that were known as Calceus. Ancient Greek societies invested in sandals with the legendary Alexander the Great promoting the lifestyle of sandals for different occasions.
Roman-styled sandals favoured by Gladiators and church officials still feature in today’s styles. In Egypt, well-heeled folks wore leather sandals considered suitable for hot weather. Other societies like those of the Native Americans, Japanese and Indians had soft spots for sandals too.
Medieval Shoes were of the 15th century to which references are made; then the rich wore shoes with pointed tips while the low class wore ones with round toes. During the Middle Ages, the poor protected their feet with wooden planks as they laboured in muddy fields.
The evolution of shoes continued up to the period known as the Renaissance generation of shoes in the 16th century during which innovations were introduced. According to historians, shoes had cuts known as slashes and as time wore on, women in the later part of the century began to wear shoes also known as mules with heels. The following two centuries saw men and women wear boots and shoes with buckles and further innovations with the introduction of shoes made from silk and satin and decorated with embroidery and gem stones.
Decorated heeled shoes were an indication of status and were common sights in French, Italian and Spanish societies especially amongst the aristocrats and nobles.
As the 19th century approached, laces replaced buckles on shoes and this period saw the mass production of shoes and the disappearance of the lines of ‘authority’ over who could or couldn’t wear shoes. They were cheaper and accessible to everyone. But there was to be an innovation that took the world by storm with the introduction of technology, which took the manufacturing of shoes from handmade tools to machines-made types
Between 1845 and 1885, several machines to sew shoes were built by innovators such as Elias Howe, Lyman R. Blake in America and Jan Matzeliger to move away from the slow-pace hammer and lap stone to ensure mass production and durability of shoes. Lyman R Blake’s invention was bought by entrepreneur Gordon McKay to become known as the “McKays.” There is no doubt that these machines were lifesavers for equipping soldiers during wars such as the Napoleonic Wars and the American Civil War.
The archetypal style of women’s shoes that captivated millions remains the high heel. It takes its history from ancient Greek times when they represented social class by the mere fact of their being elevated platforms.
Climatic conditions played a key role as well up to the present day in terms of material and style. For example, moccasin is well suited to cold countries, while the obvious choice, from early Egyptian times up to now, are sandals. Through the years, materials ranged from leather and fabric to cowhide, cork, plastic, rubber and foam.
We must not fail to say that evidence shows that the early European shoes did not differentiate between the left foot and the right one. This is unthinkable in today’s racy and creative world of women’s shoes in particular which undisputedly dominate an enormous space in design and style in the fashion industry.
The archetypal style of women’s shoes that captivated millions remains the high heel. It takes its history from ancient Greek times when they represented social class by the mere fact of their being elevated platforms. But in Egypt they were associated with religious ceremonies. As a matter of fact, they were not originally intended for women and it was not uncommon to see men and rulers such as Louis XIV (1643-1715) and his entire court, wear heels. However, from the 15th century onwards, European societies began to view the high heel as more ladylike and they thus embraced high heels for women. The heels varied from one society to another. In England they were thick in width and in height they ranged from low to medium while in France they had a slight curve to them. Women owed gratitude to the Italians for b r a v e l y moving away from their English and French
counterparts when it came to heels. Early versions were called Chopines made out of velvet which gave height advantage to the wearer whose social status it equally elevated. Conversation about heels found its way into Shakespeare’s Hamlet when he proclaimed: “Your Ladyship is nearer to heaven than when I saw you last by the altitude of a Chopine.” Chopines thus became top quality shoes for European ladies of substance! From the 20th century onwards there was an ‘explosion’ in the production of shoes with varied styles and tastes for both men and women. It is quite clear that shoes as we know them today were first designed for functional purposes and over the centuries they emerged as different shapes, styles and classifications for specific purposes. What’s more, women became the target of and for the respective types!
The shape of the heel was the ultimate definition of shoes as a whole, and every definition of it became a fashion statement across the social strata. Spiked heels popularly known as stilettos were first worn by the Italians. The word ‘stiletto’ is Italian for “thin dagger.” True to its name and its form, this style of heel captured the hearts and souls of women all over the world. It became the spark that lit the global attachment to shoes as an item of dressing. Aided by modern manufacturing processes of especially the 19th and 20th centuries, shoemakers’ creativity took the world by storm. Frenchman Richard Vivier is acclaimed to be one of the first to popularise the heel in 1954. From then on, that style of heel became a classic that took on a life of its own as it became an object of affection in the hands of shoe makers, who by now were addressed as shoe designers.
In the 1960s and 1970s and well into the 90s and 2000s platform heels caught the fancy of the designer and each style of thick block of platform heel design was made as a pair of sandals, wedges, sneakers/trainers, espadrilles, oxfords and even as a part of a stiletto. They remained hugely popular as a part of women’s trendy wardrobes. It was mass produced and in truth the shape of every heel was targeted at the female and took on a certain ‘sex appeal’ aided in part by film stars and celebrities.
The history of women’s shoes cannot not be chronicled without certain names popping up. Names like Salvatore Ferragamo, Manolo Blahnik, Stuart Wietzman, and Jimmy Choo and Christian Louboutin, who shot up in fame in the 1990s. Blahnik fondly called ‘The Holy Man of Heels’ is described in the media as “The world’s greatest shoe designer” and has 25,000 pairs to his portfolio. In an interview with the Daily Mail in 2010 he said: “A good shoe can change the way you walk totally, immediately.” On his own part, Ferragamo was called “one of the most innovative shoe designers of the 20th century.” His contribution to mainstream fashion was widely linked to the 1938 ‘rainbow platform’ made out of cork a n d suede. At the time o f his death in 1960, he had created 10,000 p
Newer players like Choo, referred to as the “shoe maker of choice for British Royalty,” and Louboutin carved their space in the footwear market from the 1990s. Through their bold creativity they became identified with women’s shoe collections. Louboutin was quoted as saying: “I wanted to create something that broke rules and made women feel confident and empowered.” And he did. His highend red varnished sole shoes got women reaching for their wallets!
Heels come in all shapes and colours adorned with stripes, stones and straps: There are pointed-toe, square-toe, round-toe, open-toe, peep-toe shoes with a variation of heels including platforms, cone-shapes, semi-stiletto, wedges, comma, block/chunky, kitten heels, asymmetrically-curved heels all of which have subsequently defined women’s shoes. The shoes have a variety of names including court shoes or pumps, flats, sling-backs, mules, ballerina flats, and loafers. From ancient times to modern 21st century, women’s shoes have gone through an evolution of shapes and colours which have birthed luxury brands from the high-end customised ones exclusively to the mass produced ones for all and sundry.
Clearly, the evolutions of men’s shoes followed similar patterns as women’s, but men didn’t appear to reach for their purses as women (reached for their wallets) when it came to purchasing shoes hence designers didn’t creatively break rules in the shoes they designed and made for men. But this is or must be a highly debatable or contentious claim. However, we leave shoe historians to finish or continue the debate as they please.