It’s hard to imagine what life was like when shoes weren’t discovered yet. Everything started because of a real and practical need to protect the feet from outside effects. This seemingly simple human need turned into a quickly growing industry in which design was just as important as functionality. Although the main qualities of footwear have remained unchanged, looking back at the long and interesting history of shoes, you can see that the colors, materials and designs did change. Before, shoes used to be made by craftsmen. But today, they are part of a factory industry earning huge amounts of money each year.
The history, changes and tendencies in footwear fashion can be divided into the main world history eras:
Prehistory (2,5 million BC – 1250 BC)
Antiquity (1250 BC – 476)
The Middle Ages (476 – 1453)
Early Modern Times (1453 – 1918)
Modern Times (1918 - these days).
During different eras there were different views of the world, different understandings of culture and art, different economic and political factors which played an important role in the materials, shapes, pronts, and style used in people’s wardrobe. The discovery and capture of new lands, new technologies and different understandings of the world changed the style and fashion of footwear.
Primitive footwear, popular during Prehistory, was changed by sandals which grew in popularity during Antiquity because of the formation of social classes. During the Middle Ages, which are characterized by humility and feudalism, the first footwear structures were formed and the heel was discovered and widely used. During the Early Modern Times were the eras of Renaissance and Baroque during which hints of modern footwear can be spotted. During this time, men’s and women’s shoes were very similar. The models of shoes varied depending on social classes. Also, during the Middle Ages when feudalism was present, society was divided into classes deciding not only different jobs and responsibilities but also different clothes and footwear. Peasants and non-noble townspeople wore heavy and dark leather boots with a heel. Meanwhile, the noble wore more fancy footwear which often had a wooden heel. Prints, ornaments and other decorative elements were worn only by the noble. They would order these shoes from a shoemaker. Every shoe was different and decorated according to the mood and wishes of the customer, so every single pair of shoes was unique and different. The Modern Times changed the understanding of fashion and drastically altered the decades-long shoemaking traditions. This happened because of new opportunities in technology which made the whole shoemaking process much more easy and simple.
When did the first shoes appear?
1991 is an important date in the history of footwear because this is the year when, at the border of Austria and Italy, archeologists found a naturally mummified human named Oetzi from the Stone Age who died about 3300 years before our era. This Alpine traveler was wearing shoes made from deerskin with a sole made from bearskin and stuffed with hay. This is how it’s thought that the Stone Age footwear production technique was like: the fewer stitches, the dryer and warmer the legs, therefore, they wrinkled the leather. The stitches were small and they were not very reliable given the tools people had at that time.
Oetzi from the Stone Age footwear
There isn’t a certain pair of shoes marking the beginning of the history of footwear. This is because there were very different shoes for different climates and different materials used for shoes were available in different regions. In Northern regions, the footwear was made from thick leather and warmed up with fur and hay. Meanwhile, in the Southern regions, there were mostly sandals made from palm leaves or papyrus fiber. Despite the climate, people needed footwear to protect their feet from natural outside effects.
Many changes and perfected footwear models emerged during the Migration Period (4th- 6th centuries) and during the Crusades (11th- 13th centuries) when Europeans marched to the East. During that time, Europe was flooded with Egyptian sandals and pointed shoes. Soon, the heel was discovered and the western fashion of footwear began to develop, which in the spiritual and rigorous world of the Middle Ages was worn depending on the person’s social class. The most unique and popular trends flourished in Italy and Spain, the countries where the strongest seaports of Europe were located, the craftsmen's shops and merchants were developing at rapid speed, and the first financial centers were established. So these countries were a true cradle of footwear and attire fashion.
Modern footwear designers often look back at history for new ideas, inspiration and creativity. Footwear production methods, sewing structures, leather washing, burning and painting almost hasn’t changed since the end of the 19th century.
Now, let’s check out footwear fashion and trends throughout different historical periods.
The history of footwear during the Old Times and Antiquity (1250 BC – 476 BC)
The first sandals emerged in ancient Egypt. They were made from palm leaves, papyrus fiber and raw leather. These sandals were stretched and tied at the end of the foot. At first, only clerics and the Pharaoh were able to wear them but later sandals were worn by all ancient Egyptians and the different colors symbolized a certain social class.
It’s also worth mentioning China. China’s trends are difficult to understand by many Western countries. For many decades, a canon of beauty in China was golden lotus feet which mostly grew in popularity during the 10th- 11th centuries. Golden lotus feet refers to breaking and bending the toes so that the feet would fit properly into special shoes. Small feet were considered true beauty in the Eastern world.
Classic Antiquity dates back to the Greek and Roman periods of culture when the early stage of footwear production began to thrive. Fragments of the development and evolution have remained in paintings and drawings. The first and one of the most popular Greek and Roman shoe models were sandals. Unlike with the Egyptians, these sandals were long, went halfway up the knees and had many laces. In both countries, footwear wasn’t divided into men’s and women’s. Everybody wore them in the same way but there were some regulations. In Greek, sandals could only be worn by free citizens who could easily be distinguished from slaves. In ancient Rome, clothes and shoes were a symbol of power and civilization, so the shoes were worn according to the person’s position in society and their social class. Here’s an example: Roman soldiers wore sandals. The more laces the sandals had and the thinner the sole, the higher rank the soldier is.
Ancient Greek and Roman sandals
Sandals were dominating shoes in Europe for a while. They were made according to cleric, military, elite and peasant styles.
In Celtic lands there were comfortable, slip-on weaved shoes, often made from wood. They quickly became footwear for peasants and the poor.
The Middle Ages (476 – 1453)
Although the Middle Ages are considered the dark ages, it was during this time that a lot of new footwear trends and fashion appeared. The heel was discovered and was only worn by men at first. Also, pointed shoes, the first footwear structures and a primitive Goodyear structure appeared.
At the beginning of the Middle Ages, espadrilles came to Central Europe from the Pyrenees and became very popular. These shoes were made from jute canvas, were light and comfortable but were to be worn in a warmer climate which is why they didn’t reach Northern Europe.
Northern and Central Europe produced leather boots that were turned inside out and sewn up with the shoe sole. It was a nearly seamless structure as the seams remained inside the shoe, thus protecting and strengthening the shoe, but this design could only be used with soft and flexible leather. A benefit of these shoes is that they could be worn during different times of the year by adding some hay or fur inside the shoe during the cold period.
During the Gothic period, unusual footwear with long and pointed tips, called poulaines thrived. Sometimes, the tips of these shoes were as long as half a meter. The length of the tip represented status. Some of these shoes were so long that they needed to be tied to the legs with special laces so that it would be possible to walk properly. This type of footwear was made from different materials, such as velvet, and it was decorated with fancy elements.
Middle Ages footwear and Vic Matie model
Early Modern Times (1453– 1918)
Men’s and women’s fashion was different during this period and until the end of the 18th century, it was mostly dictated by men. Men were the first to wear shoes with heels. Up until the end of the 18th century, men’s legs were considered to be the standard of beauty. Although women also wore fancy shoes, they were hidden under long skirts. So men were the ones to dictate fashion, footwear fashion in particular.
Earlier, fashion changed much slower and shoe trends and production started in countries in a good economic situation and with quickly developing art and aesthetics. For example, Spain and Italy played a great role in costume design in the 16th century. Shoes that were made in these countries later spread widely across Europe. They had the fanciest decorations and patterns and were made using the newest and most fashionable materials of that time.
During the Renaissance period, kings in Europe often wore shoes with very high heels in order to demonstrate their supremacy. Also, they could calmly walk straight through puddles as their heels were as high as 30 cm. These shoes were prototypes of modern platform shoes. King Louis XIV of France, also known as Sun King, played an important role in spreading the popularity of high heels. Even now, fashion historians refer to men’s high heels as French shoes.
During the Renaissance period, pointed shoes were swapped with footwear called duck-billed with wide, squared noses. Meanwhile, women began to wear platforms.
It was during the revival of culture and aesthetics that the noble knights thrived. They were the first to start wearing ankle boots because they were comfortable for horseback riding and fighting.
Women and men footwear during the Renaissance
Baroque is one of the most controversial cultural periods characterized by complexity, pretentiousness, drama and an inclination to greatness. So it’s not surprising that during this cultural period footwear was made from expensive materials, such as velvet, satin, silk and the shoes were decorated with artificial flowers, ribbons and gemstones. Men wore shoes with red heels in order to show their status.
Strategia model and Baroque times shoes
In the 17th century, men began to wear boots with fancy socks coming from them. Footwear became more important to women, so Baroque shoes that used to be modest now had various embroidery and decorative elements.
Baroque was replaced by Rococo (late Baroque). The main accent of Rococo is the buckle and the Louis heel for women's footwear.
Only in the beginning of the 19th century did men’s and women’s shoes begin to differ in style, color, heel and shape of the front. During the Napoleonic era, fabric footwear became very popular elite shoes. Meanwhile, the classic height of the men’s footwear heel formed which was 2.5 cm. The era when men wore higher high heels than women came to an end.
However, the biggest breakthrough in footwear production was during the Industrial Revolution. Inventors and craftsmen in the United Kingdom and North America invented a modern footwear sewing machine and began mass fabric-made footwear production. Jan Ernst Matzeliger developed a shoemaking method which allowed about 700 pairs of shoes to be made each day. Footwear became accessible to everyone and finally, from the middle of the 19th century, shoes for the left and right foot became different!
In the 19th century, laced shoes began to grow in popularity after Americans began to harden the ends of shoelaces during the end of the 18th century. Laced shoes which were above the ankles became some of the most popular standard shoes for men.
The Adelaide model for women was woven, laced at the sides and had a low heel.
Until World War I nudity wasn’t acceptable, so only slippers (toilet shoes) were seductive, made from silk or satin and with added ribbons.
At this time, Oxford shoes became very popular and widely worn by women. This was when women stopped wearing fancy clothes and the image of mourning women doing all household work was very common.
Modern Times (1918 - these days)
There was a huge breakthrough in footwear in the second part of the 20th century with the establishment and prosperity of American pop culture which was associated with the desire to be different, unique and to be part of a certain subculture. Cheaper raw materials, new structures and a different lifestyle changed the image of gentlemen and ladies. Fancy and high-quality footwear was changed by trendy, constantly changing colorful footwear. Hollywood actors and singers greatly influenced the formation and popularity of this new footwear. The band Beatles popularized Chelsea shoes, actress Audrey Hepburn popularized kitten heels, and schoolgirls wore Mary Jane shoes in the 5th decade.
With the increasing number of working women, high-heel trends began changing. Platforms popular in the 7th and 8th decades lost their popularity and were changed by low heeled shoes in the 9th decade.
Audrey Hepburn and Vic Matie model
Sports shoes had the greatest impact on further footwear fashion. The first step towards the revolution was the invention of sports shoes for basketball players by “Converse” in 1917. These were the very first steps toward trendy sports shoes.
At the end of the 19th century, in 1892, the “U.S. Rubber Company” created a modern, comfortable, beautiful fabric-made sports shoe model with a rubber sole. This is how “Keds” were born. After about 25 years, once these shoes were perfected and patented, mass production began. From the middle of 1940, a visible revolution in sports shoes and clothes began and the era of ladies and gentlemen ended. Comfort, style, improvisation and creativity.
The name “Sneaker’’ came from the English word “sneak”. Paradoxically, from the very first steps, sports shoes did not go quietly, but proudly and loudly declared to the whole world: "We are here!". The undefined “here” has not only won over sports arenas but also fashion podiums and all shelves at shoe stores. The popularity remains the same today!
The history of footwear is interesting and intriguing. It reveals the strict division of society into classes, the changing of fashion in different eras. Unlike these days, fashion changed every 10 or even 100 years, not every season. There were times when women couldn’t wear heeled shoes, slaves didn’t have any footwear in order to distinguish them from other people, and the noble competed with each other in terms of how fancy and sophisticated their shoes were. When we take a look at the remaining shoes, our mouths become wide open. How could men possibly have worn shoes with heels as high as 30 centimeters?
Today, in the free market and society with no laws restricting human rights, we can wear whatever our hearts desire. We can follow fashion trends and find different footwear for each situation and occasion according to our moods or dress code. The amazing 21st century and technological opportunities allow us to have the highest quality, durable and fashionable shoes. And not just one pair but a whole closet full of fashionable shoes!