Honestly, what would we do without shoes?
They’re underappreciated protective barriers between our hard-working feet and the terrain of the outside world.
Think about that hurried one-minute awkward walk you make across the hot sand on the way down the beach to the water, or the way you lift your feet in pain on the hot cement while waiting in line at the water park. And of course, on the flip side, no one likes having cold toes.
Ever broken a flip-flop and have to walk over loose gravel, pebbles, or wood chips back to the car? You never notice how sensitive your feet are until you’re walking on anything other than carpet, wood, tile, or flat concrete without shoes on.
Shoes protect us from splinters, broken glass, and other sharp objects. I once found a nail stuck in the bottom of my sneaker – without shoes, I would’ve needed a tetanus shot.
Even dogs have shoes now to protect their precious little paw pads from blistering on Texas’ 100-degree sidewalks or freezing up in the mountains of Colorado.
So how did shoes come to be what they are to us now? Let’s look at the history of shoes and learn more.
Hypotheses suggest that shoes were invented approximately 40,000 years ago during the Middle Paleolithic period, eventually becoming a staple of human populations by the Upper Paleolithic Period.
These early prototypes of the shoes we know and love today were soft and made from wraparound leather – they looked like sandals or moccasins.
Shoes have been around for an awfully long time – so let’s start our timeline from the beginning.
Sandals were typically the most popular type of shoe in the times of antiquity – they’re just enough to protect the feet, with a little decoration. Even in the ancient classical times shoes were already tied to social status. Only certain classes could wear certain types of shoes, or shoes at all.
Egyptians from around 1550 to 1070 BC usually wore sandals with a sole made of plaited hemp or papyrus attached with a tanned leather strap. You could tell a pharaoh, prince, or priest by their shoes – they’d have a long, decorative peaked toe. Egyptians also used overshoes made of woven reeds as foot coverings.
Around 68 to 56 BC, those traveling on the Silk Road would wear stitched hemp shoes.
The Bible references people wearing shoes and sandals.
The general Celtic population wore heelless shoes called opanci with a sole that curved up and ended in a beaklike pointed toe.
The Franks and Teutons wore foot socks made of untanned fur that went up to their knees until about 500 BC when they switched over to tied leather peasant boots.
The Greeks and Romans were also well known for their sandals. As an athletic and military people respectively, sandals were not confining and allowed for easy movement. Certain styles of shoe could mark you out as a freeman or slave, a soldier of a certain rank, or a dramatist.
Roman sandals were typically unisex and made with cork soles and leather straps or laces. Roman military sandals were called caligae, and had soles reinforced with hobnails. The footprints could leave patterns and messages in the ground. You could tell the rank of a Roman soldier by their shoes – the thinner the sole and the greater number of straps ascending up the leg, the higher the wearer’s rank.
In Japan, traditional footwear was introduced even back in the Samurai Era and is still worn today for festivals and the like. Some traditional Japanese shoes are waraji, a woven straw sandal, and geta, which are typically wooden with a rectangular base and two perpendicular teeth to balance on.
In the Middle Ages, the everyday northern and central European leather shoe was made using the turnshoe production method. Certain light and flexible leather types were sewn together inside-out and worn with the other side facing out (basically the same way you’d make a pillowcase). Sole reinforcements were sometimes added on to the shoe after the shaft and sole were stitched together.
You could tell someone’s social class by the length of the toe on their shoe. Enter: the Crakow shoe. Popular in the 14th and 15th centuries, the Crakow shoe notably had a toe that bent upward and ended in a fine point called a poulaine.
The length of the poulaine mattered – it was strictly regulated. The longest poulaines belonged to princes and earls at 2.5 feet. If you were a knight your poulaine would be 1.5 feet. If you were just a common citizen or farmer your poulaine was only half a foot long.
The shoes were fairly delicate, so sometimes they were mounted or slipped into onto a wooden or leather platform called a patten to protect from dirty streets and rainy or cool weather.
Broad shoes with short toes like duck’s bill shoes, cow-mouth shoes, and bear claw shoes became popular in the 16th century thanks to the method of Goodyear welting (before it was even called Goodyear welting).
The 16th century also ushered in heels for shoes – for both men and women. Men liked having the height-boost, while women liked them for beauty, posture, and the erotic gait.
Heels started in Spain and spread to England, France, Italy, and beyond. Chopines were some of the most intense high-heeled shoes of the time, some with platforms up to 40 centimeters (about a foot and 4 inches). Most chopines weren’t that extreme, but those that wore the extreme ones needed to walk with poles or be accompanied by a server to prevent themselves from falling over.
The average chopine actually served a practical purpose – they kept the wearer up and away from the damp and soiled streets. They were also a sign of social status (literally raised above everyone else). Some courtesans would wear the tall chopines to assert themselves as a highly visible public profile. They were most popular in Spain and Italy.
The 19th century brought the industrial revolution – many of the current standards of shoe design and production were created during this time. Classic men’s shoe models especially and basically the same today as they were when they were developed.
Mass production came to the forefront in all manufacturing, including shoes. The sewing machine and other technological advances contributed heavily to the change in the shoe industry. Shoes could be made faster and for less.
Surprisingly, different shoes for your right and left feet is a fairly new concept – shoes used to be made over the same straight lasts (the shapes a shoe is built on top of) until as late as 1850. The invention of left and right shoes made shoes far more comfortable.
Jan Ernst Matzeigler is credited with inventing the modern shoe in 1883 – he holds the patent for his shoe lasting machine. The machine held a shoe on a last, pulled the leather down and around the heel, set and drove in nails, then spat out the finished shoe. It could produce 700 pairs of shoes a day which was more than 10 times what people could produce manually.
And now, here we are!
You can see the echoes of shoes-past in the modern designs today.
And of course, even now we have shoe trends that fall in and out of style.
Think of Crocs, Uggs, Jandals, toe shoes, cowboy boots. I was guilty of wearing knee-high zip-up black Converse during my middle school goth phase. And who could forget the clear plastic glitter and platform jelly shoes of the late 1990s and early 2000s?
Styles always seem to come back around – some old and modern styles seem timeless.
Converse’s All Star shoes were made in 1917 for basketball, and the design hasn’t changed much since then. Now they’re worn for far more than basketball, almost as a staple shoe of American closets. Oxfords became fashionable in the 1920s and the shoe’s aesthetic still has big fans. Sports shoes gained popularity in the 1960s for their comfort and design options and are still widely worn today. Think of deck shoes, flip-flops, stilettos. They aren’t going away anytime soon.
However, nowadays our shoes are far less durable than they used to be – the use of cheap synthetic materials and gluing instead of stitching made shoes more affordable, but they also don’t last very long.
Shoes used to be made for you by cobblers (as tailors and seamstresses did with your clothes). Now they’re mass produced – although we certainly don’t suffer from a lack of options. If you’re rich enough, you can still get custom shoes made anyway.
Plenty of artistic people buy white canvas shoes and use paint to make them their own – you can find tons of Etsy shops offering custom shoes inspired by favorite movies, pictures, cartoons, and more.
There have also been some wild shoes created for high-fashion and artistic design purposes – from heels of outrageous heights to a shoe with several tentacles.
Shoes help us express who we are and how we’re feeling.
Here are a couple of interesting bonus topics in the history of shoes.
Small feet used to mean everything in China.
Chinese girls typically had their feet bound when they were 4 to 6 years old. It had to be done this young to keep the feet small. To bind a foot, the four small toes had to be broken and bound flat against the sole into a triangle shape, then the arch was strained and bent.
The feet were then wrapped with a 10-foot long silk strip that was removed and washed every few days only to be bound tighter than before. The girls had to walk long distances, so their arches would break faster. It took 2 years for a foot to be fully bound.
All of this was done to try and get the highly sought-after golden lily foot or golden lotus foot – a foot no longer than 3 or 4 inches (4 inches was respectable, a 5-inch foot was written off as a lowly “iron lotus”) with a cleft in the foot that could hold a coin.
You might be wondering why girls would put themselves through so much pain. It was the only way for them to be married and find a suitable match – their ability to marry up or at all depended on how small and well-bound their feet were. It was an incredibly patriarchal and oppressive practice. Foot-binding had a lot to do with male pleasure.
The emperor’s favorite concubine bound her feet in a new-moon shape and performed a lotus dance – as a result, foot-binding became fashionable in the royal court to try and gain the emperor’s favor. It spread from there. Foot-binding was a show of socioeconomic status as well as a kind of discipline so the girls would sit still and work with their hands (making yarn, spinning thread, creating textiles).
The practice was banned in 1911 but persisted well into the 1930s. The last shoe factory for lotus shoes closed in 1999.
Foot-binding lasted as long as it did because of its ties to Chinese female identity and Confucianism. When the Mongols (Song Dynasty) invaded China in 1279, foot-binding transformed from a fashionable impulse of the elite to a way for Women to express their ethnic pride and Han identity.
The Neo-Confucianism that developed in the Song Era emphasized chastity, obedience, and diligence for women – they were to serve their husbands, give birth to sons, and be prepared to die or suffer for their commitment to the “Way of the Sages.” The pain of foot-binding became a woman’s way of showing her Confucian commitment every day through her physical limitations.
Lotus shoes are a type of intricately-decorated shoe that foot-bound women wore. They were usually made of cotton, silk satin, and wood. They made it so women had to walk on their toes, which was both painful and difficult.
A history of shoes would be incomplete without mentioning the infamous Imelda Marcos’ legendary collection of 3,000 shoes.
Imelda, the wife of Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos, lived a life of luxury and excess – and she loved shoes.
She had all kinds of shoes (high heels, flats, sandals, boots, slippers, you name it) from many different designers – Ferragamo, Givenchy, Chanel, Christian Dior, Charles Jourdan and Bally, and more. Filipino shoemakers also gifted her many of her pairs for endorsing their products.
Her favorite shoes were a pair of black pumps with embedded gold stones and sparkles by the Italian shoemaker Beltrami.
Unfortunately, the collection isn’t 3,000 anymore. At least 1,220 of the shoes were left behind when the Marcoses were exiled, and floods and termites destroyed many of them. 765 survived though, and they now take up the majority of the Marikina Shoe Museum.
So, what will the shoes of the future look like?
Most signs point to shoes becoming a part of the internet of things, or the network of objects embedded with electronics, software, sensors, network connectivity, and the like so they can collect and exchange data. There are shoes now with GPS, heating, pedometers, audio-playing capabilities, massage functions, and automated fastenings. Some imagine shoes to someday be able to stimulate the nerves in our feet to improve health.
They could also have soft-sensor networks, or flexible circuits put inside of the upper or insole to collect data and send it to an external watch, phone, or computer. Our shoes could monitor the health of our bodies.
Something particularly interesting is the possibility of materials (and shoes made of those materials) being biologically interactive – meaning they could use bacteria or some other organic matter to generate interactivity. So, in theory, a material 3D-printed with bacteria could release or contract in response to heat and then open panels in your shoes when you get hot and sweaty and close them once you’ve cooled down. How wild would that be?
We’ll just have to see what new inventions come up in the next few years.