Foot fashion: a brief history of shoes and boots

Hunters were probably the first people to think of protecting their feet by wrapping them in animal skins — the earliest surviving examples date from the second millennium BC.

Foot fashion: a brief history of shoes and boots
Foot fashion: a brief history of shoes and boots

Hunters were probably the first people to think of protecting their feet by wrapping them in animal skins — the earliest surviving examples date from the second millennium BC. A Spanish cave painting of 13,000 BC depicted both a man and woman wearing boots of fur and animal skin.

Essential and fashionable

  • Gradually, however, boots became essential footwear for men, while leisured women wore decorative but impractical shoes.
  • Only in the 1830s did ankle boots — considered suitably modest — become fashionable for women.
  • In the 1820s the hero of Waterloo, the first Duke of Wellington, gave his name to a tall, slim-cut leather boot.
  • It reigned supreme until the 1860s, when it lost out to the elastic-sided boot, invented in 1837 by Queen Victoria’s bootmaker, J. Sparkes Hall, and reinvented in the 1950s as the Chelsea boot.

Natural surrounding were the obvious choices of material

  • During the pre-Roman era, northern Europeans made shoes from a single piece of animal skin. They pierced the edges with holes, then threaded through a leather thong.
  • This was pulled tight and tied on top of the foot.
  • The Native American buckskin version, the maxkeseni, came to England in the 17th century as the moccasin and was briefly in vogue until it fell victim to an import tax.
  • The brogue, too, started out as a rough shoe of undressed leather tied on with thongs in 16th-century Ireland and Scotland.
  • Holes allowed bog water to drain out while the wearer was walking.

Refined with time

  • The shoe proved so practical that British gamekeepers and their masters adopted it, and by the late 1800s the shoe was heavier and square-toed.
  • It became more refined until, in the 1930s, the Prince of Wales shocked conservative society by wearing suede brogues with a lounge suit.

High fashion

  • In the late 11th century shoemakers began to stitch together the sole and upper: previously shoes had been made in one piece.
  • Silk and velvet began to be used, while buttons and buckles became alternatives to laces when fastening footwear.
  • From the early Middle Ages, wooden clogs or pattens protected feet from Europe’s filthy streets.
  • In the 1500s the Venetian chopine had a wedged sole that raised its wearer as much as 50 centimetres (20 inches).

Heels for everyone

  • Later in the 16th century a more practical solution was made by building up layers of leather to form a wedge at the end of the sole, but by 1600, shoes had recognizable heels.
  • As a result it became more economical to make “straights,” which were worn on either foot, and left and right shoes disappeared until the late 18th century. Both men and women wore heels.
  • The French king Louis XIV added an extra 12.5 centimetres (five inches) to his small stature, while ladies at the court of Louis XVI could not tackle stairs unaided.
  • Heels did not reach such extremes again until the stiletto appeared in Italy in 1953.

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