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Shoe choices in the workplace were originally about protecting feet from injuries. As technology advanced and people became more conscious of what they were wearing, shoes began to become a matter of status. Laws were brought in to regulate shoe designs and prevent lower classes wearing certain styles of shoes that were reserved for the most wealthy. This meant that shoes were worn to reflect your income and position in society.
Today, some of these attitudes still exist, at least on the subconscious level. Shoe choices have a strong focus on fashion and design, as well as serving a functional purpose. Many people and companies still prioritize appearance over comfort, such as obligatory high heels for women in some professions, despite a growing resistance to this and research showing it is bad for foot health.
Other industries have to focus on safety boots and equipment for workers due to compensation laws that forced them to prioritize safety over cost and convenience, while other professionals who spend many hours on their feet, such as nurses and chefs, care about comfort over anything else.
The oldest evidence of people wearing shoes dates back 42,000 years. Archeological evidence found skeletons where toe bones were slimmer than those found in most early humans, who were known to walk barefoot, resulting in thicker bones. Studies of ancient skeletons illustrate a change between 26,000-30,000 years ago, where smaller toe bones that appear less robust become more normal. Experts believe that this is due to support given by shoes.
A 27,000 year old Russian skeleton was found to also have smaller foot bones, indicating the use of shoes, but also included ivory beads around the ankle and foot. This is one of the oldest suggestions that shoes were used for decoration and status, not just for protecting the foot.
During the 4th century BC, Alexander the Great unified Greece, bringing an age of wealth and leisure, along with developments in the arts, science and sports. This led to many different sandal styles being introduced across Europe with rules about which should be worn for specific occasions. This has helped to shape the different styles of shoes worn today for specific things, such as smart shoes for office work and protective shoes for physical work.
Before the late Middle Ages, shoes were very much about protecting the feet. However, when new technologies developed, people became more creative with the designs they could come up with and actually make. The distinct styles reflected the wearer’s status in society.
Long, pointed toes were first brought into fashion in the late 1100s, but only had a brief period of popularity, until they came back in the 1300s. These shoes were known as poulaines and were worn by the elite only, often using expensive materials and showing off extravagant styles. Laws were brought in to restrict the shoe’s toe length and width, basing it on the wearer’s income and place in society. This was to protect the aristocrat’s societal status.
It is believed that some of the first protective shoes were worn in the Middle Ages by Romans. Clogs and wooden soled shoes provided elevation from the ground, protecting the feet of peasants and workers from the mud, damp, cold, stones and debris.
Wood soled shoes were worn throughout most of Europe during the Middle Ages. A sabot was a traditional French wood soled shoe and would be worn by factory workers. Historians believe the word sabotage comes from these shoes as angry workers would damage factory machinery with them, showing that these shoes were a strong and protective choice. Pattens were another wood soled shoe worn in the Middle Ages until the Victorian times. They would be used when people were mopping floors, making them a good choice for housewives and cleaners.
Clogs came back into fashion in the 1970s and remain popular in some professions today. They’re now often made with leather or fabric uppers and rubber or cork soles to make them lightweight and breathable, but they keep the classic clog design. The lightweight and breathable style that they have today has made them popular with chefs, cleaners and healthcare professionals, such as nurses, who spend a lot of time on their feet and appreciate the wide fit and simplicity of slipping them on and off.
At the start of the 20th century health and safety in the workplace became an important issue. Prior to this, if a worker had an accident and was injured it was cheaper and quicker to replace them than it was to introduce safety measures. Compensation laws were then brought in that started to cost companies large sums of money, which pushed them to focus on safety measures and bring in new equipment, including the steel toe capped work boots that are commonly used in manual jobs. Steel toe capped boots were invented in Germany at the end of World War II to help workers protect themselves.
The U.S Congress brought in the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970 that ensured a safe working environment for employees, including the use of protective footwear in places that presented a threat of foot injuries. Today, it is mandatory that these type of laws and policies are followed by all employers and employees.
Other types of safety work boots worn today include heat and cold resistance, electrical resistance, water resistance and energy absorption, depending on the profession. Safety work boots were originally introduced purely to protect workers’ feet, but today, there is also demand for them to be fashionable. Shoe manufacturers who focus solely on work boots face competition from big brand shoe designers who have started produce fashionable work boots, giving workers a lot more choice.
Many women joined the workforce in World War II, but it was the feminist movement in the 1960s that really saw change as women entered the workforce in great numbers. This meant that for the first time, shoe manufacturers started to make women’s work shoes. Of course, like men’s shoes, these depended on the jobs women were doing. They might need protective shoes for manual jobs, comfy shoes for professions where they are on their feet all day or smart shoes for office roles.
Women’s work shoes quickly became fashion-led, which unfortunately meant certain styles were mandatory based on the job, such as high heels for flight attendants. However, this then led to problems as accidents started to occur and women would get aching and painful feet because of their shoes, but were not allowed to wear anything more comfortable without risking their jobs.
Originally high heels were worn by aristocratic women to keep their feet and dresses clean, as well as to show off their status in society. Over time, policies and laws have been brought in to regulate when high heels can be worn in a work environment to avoid damaging floors or risking accidents.
However, many professions are still associated with women wearing high heels, such as air flight attendants, cocktail waitresses and female office workers. Many laws prevent heels being worn for safety reasons, but fail to take into account the increased risk of slips, trips and falls, as well as heels being uncomfortable and having the potential to change bone structure over time.
More recently, laws and workplace policies regarding the shoes that women can wear has started to change as they are at risk of being discriminatory on the grounds of sex.
In 2001, cocktail waitresses in Las Vegas organized a campaign against casinos requiring them to wear high heels. The campaign was successful, and the casinos relaxed their policies. In 2017, British Columbia changed its workplace legislation to prevent employers forcing women to wear high heels at work, saying it was unsafe and discriminatory. The Philippines has also stopped companies from making it mandatory for female employees to wear high heels at work.
In the UK in 2016, a receptionist was sent home without pay as she refused to wear high heels that were part of the company’s dress code, despite signing an appearance agreement. To begin with, the company defended its decision, but the worker started a campaign, with the aim of making it illegal for high heels to be a requirement for women at work. The campaign got over 130,000 signatures, which was enough for it to be discussed in parliament and the company changed its policy. The UK government dismissed the matter in April 2017, saying that current legislation was “adequate” and that the company had broken the current law.
Smart casual can be one of the most difficult styles to pull off in the workplace. It’s about trying to find that perfect balance between looking professional but feeling comfortable and fashionable. Of course, shoes play a big role in this.
Functionality of work shoes should always come first, such as making sure they meet the safety specifications for a job and are comfortable. Next is getting them to fit the role that you are in. For example, an office job would prioritize smart shoes for men in black or brown, where a casual element can be added through clothing.
For women it’s more versatile as high heels and work shoes come in a whole range of colors, styles and materials. Alternatively, or it is easy to wear smart clothes and go for a more casual option with the shoes. Smart casual is a modern term and style that started in the 1950s when it was implied men should wear a more casual suit, compared to black, heavy cloth ones that were the norm. Today, it’s even more relaxed and can incorporate anything from Brogues to Converse.
Pairing sneakers with a suit comes down to the right style and colors. To keep it looking professional, sneakers should be clean and in good condition, as old and battered shoes will never look professional, even if it is for a smart casual look.
Ideally, the sneakers should be a non-sport pair that are free of any obvious logos and made from high quality materials to give a sense of formality. The suit that they are being paired with is just as important. It should be tailored and of a fairly casual design, such as a chino suit, as this will pair well for a smart casual look, compared to a super smart suit with casual shoes, which can be difficult to pull off.
As health and safety regulations tighten it is likely that work boots will adhere to stricter guidelines to ensure safety for workers. Shoe designers are aware of this and will continue to incorporate work boots into their lines, offering a range of fashionable choices, rather than workers having one option that is supplied by their employer.
It also seems probable that insisting on high heels in the workplace will become outlawed as more information becomes available about the long-term effects that regularly wearing high heels can have, as well as it being seen as discrimination against women in the workplace.
With the rise of smart casual, this will help to offer more smart shoe choices for women in the workplace that do not sacrifice comfort, health or safety, while men can pair comfortable sneakers with suits.
Workplace shoes started out as basic foot protection, but it took compensation laws centuries later to bring these to the forefront of workers’ health and safety rights. Work shoes are now becoming more about fashion trends, even for safety boots where the two entwine. Smart, fashionable and expensive shoes have always been a sign of wealth and status, even today to a lesser extent, but smart casual is paving the way for modern work attire.