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Footwear's Untold History

Aug 18, 2007
Whether it's sandals, trainers or high heels, we usually go out with something on our feet in the morning. But where have these traditions come from?

The earliest evidence of footwear is from cave paintings in Spain some 15,000 years ago. It was probably made from grass, bark or animal skins held on with ties, and would have been worn to protect the feet from rough terrain. Things changed very little, and sandals of the ancient Egyptians were made of straw, papyrus or of palm tree fibres. The lower classes walked barefoot while the upper classes wore the shoes - but often carrying them with them and only wearing them on their arrival at a house or meeting room. Pharaoh's sandals often had their enemies images printed on the sole, so they could be walked over continuously.

About a thousand years BC, the Greeks introduced the world too the new fashion of having different models for the left and right feet. The Romans, who were master tanners and created some of the best leather sandals, further adopted this. They were also the first to provide specific shoes for their military personnel, with the invention of the "caligae" - a Kinky boots? hard wearing platform made with several layers of hide and strapped around the foot and ankle. Footwear was an indication of class in Rome; the important consuls wore white shoes, senators donned brown leather-strapped shoes and the legionnaires had open-toed boots.

Shoes changed very little in the following thousand years, with slight modifications only in the height above the ankle and in the thickness of the hides. It was not until the mid-1500s that heels first made an appearance, originally wedges of cork or leather had been used but these were uncomfortable. New wooden heels required uppers with a more defined shape and greater stability. Shoes began to be "turned" on wooden lasts.

Buckles were the popular attachment of the 1700s, although they started to disappear towards the end of the century, with ties coming back into fashion. Men of the age found lace shoes with metal eyelets rather dashing, whilst women tended towards low cut sandals with ribbon ties up the ankle. Moving into the 1800s saw different shoes for different times of day - boots for walking, elastic side shoes for evening dress and flat shoes around the home. Men's heels were set at one inch. Women, in contrast, saw their heels increase from just under an inch to almost six inches by the end of the 19th century and boots there the item of choice.

With WW1 and rationing, footwear took a back seat, with boots still the most popular item for both men and women. However, after the war ended skirts became shorter and people took more notice of what was on the feet. Pointed toes, straps, ribbons and feathers were all in ascendance with heels a steady two inches. The men plumbed for the more sedate rounded toe and flat soles.

The first trainers with rubber soles and linen uppers arrived in the 1930s around the same time as the Adidas company was started. These new style softer shoes were both comfortable and sturdy. A decade later saw the platform and the wedge appear which consisted of a covered cork sole. Into the fifties and the youth of America was all wearing canvas All Star basketball boots. The Brits, however, adopted the winkle-picker, a very pointed boot that every schoolboy of the time had to have. For the ladies, the stiletto heel appeared in 1955, with very narrow point that damaged many a hotel lobby and pavement at the time. Shape was far more important than colour and many were brown or black for day to day footwear.
being the Old English for footprint), which were whittled down to match the dimensions of the customer's foot. Turned shoes were made inside out and then reversed so that the stitching was on the inside of the shoe, out of sight. The leather uppers and wooden heels were attached while on the last, and stitched in place - uppers usually being made from cowhide, but high quality boots used goatskin as the main material.

The rise of the Beatles brought the Chelsea boot and to the fore, with its elastic triangular-shaped sides. Girls stuck to the go-go boots, but later in the decade the platforms were the in thing to wear, and in 1968 every trendy store in London was selling the new wave platforms making them the height of fashion. The punk movement in the '70s was the instigator of the Doc Marten boot with its famous steel toe-cap, at the time synonymous with rebels, wild hairdos and shaved heads. For both sexes, the sports show was increasingly popular and the craze of jogging brought trainers right to the front line. Nike introduced their swoosh or tick logo in the late '70s and were instantly popular.

Loafers were the fashion in the '80s, but with an increasing array of trainers for all types of sports more and more popular. It was not who you were, but what you wore. Even to this day, trainers sell more than any other shoe, with over 300 million being sold in the USA each year alone. The range of boots, walking shoes, loafers, high heels, sandals, pumps and dress shoes is almost endless. When it comes to numbers, Philippine former First Lady Imelda Marcos still holds the record for the largest show collection, with over 3,400 pairs.
About the Author
Andy worked for four years studying ducks (no stop laughing, he really did). He went into his PhD thinking he was going to save the world (albeit from ducks) and now spends him time lovingly preening Null Hypothesis, the Journal of Unlikely Science!
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