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Footwear – humanity’s faithful companion. Or a little history about shoes.

When you are excited about a new pair of shoes, you appreciate their comfort and elegance, and you start picturing different combinations in your mind trying to match these shoes with different outfits, and you rarely think about the fact that you have bought an item that has been with humanity since the beginning of time. However, the different models and shapes of footwear reflect the rich and exciting history of this part of your wardrobe. So let’s dive into the history of footwear!

The dawn of civilization – beating the cold

According to Erik Trinkaus, an American historian, the first shoes emerged 26,000–30,000 years ago in Western Eurasia. He studied the skeletons of people from the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic eras, focusing on the little toes, which gradually became weaker and weaker. The shape of the foot also started to change. These changes were likely due to the tightness of the footwear. Paleontologists claim that the first footwear of primitive civilizations who lived in cold climates was made of wild animal skins, which were used to wrap the feet with dry grass stuffed inside.

Ancient history: show me your shoes - I will tell you who you are!

In ancient Egypt, feet had to be protected from hot sand rather than the cold, so the main focus was on the soles of shoes made of papyrus or palm leaves. These predecessors of sandals were made the same for both left and right feet and were fastened around the foot with leather laces. And here, apparently, we have to make a small discourse in our narrative because, from this point onwards in the history of footwear, differentiation emerged where socio-economic status became a decisive factor. Wealthy people have always sought to stand out from the crowd, to show that they belonged to a higher class, so clothing and footwear were one of the means of this self-expression. The wealthy ancient Egyptians were thus the first to decorate leather laces with various patterns, semi-precious and precious stones.

The sole made of papyrus or palm leaves.

When one thinks of ancient Greece, the knee-high lace-up sandals that, according to ancient myths, were worn by Hermes, a god of Olympus, probably spring to mind. However, the real revolution in footwear production at the time came from hetairas – women who could attend men's gatherings. They commissioned the production of different shoes for left and right feet, which would leave a "follow me" imprint in the sand. The first platform shoes also originated in ancient Greece and were worn by actors during performances to make them taller and more visible to the audience. Footwear also served to "identify" social status, with each class wearing differently shaped shoes.

In ancient Rome, footwear had a practical and a social function, and each social class wore the type of footwear that was strictly in line with their societal status. Both patricians and plebeians wore footwear that only covered the shoe's sole and was fastened to the foot with laces. However, the sandals of the nobility were tied with four laces and those worn by the plebeians with one. Soldiers wore nailed half-boots, while actors wore slip-on shoes made of rope fibers.

In the Kingdom of Israel, footwear was varied and of high quality. Shoes were made from leather, wool, and wood. Wealthy townspeople did not limit themselves to a single pair of shoes, so they also wore boots and shoes in addition to sandals and half-boots. Where was made the first to make high heels, with perfume vials inserted into the soles.

Medieval Europe: men dictate fashion!

Both clothing and footwear were incredibly pretentious in medieval Europe. Open shoes were unacceptable among the upper class, so the nobility opted for closed shoes with long, upturned toes. In keeping with the time's fashion, a bell was often attached to the top of a shoe. In the 14th century, the length of a shoe's tip was used to determine a person's social status. A duke's shoe could be 3 cm longer than his foot, a baron's shoe could be 2 cm longer than his foot, whereas a courtier's shoe could be just 1.5 cm longer than his foot. Of course, it was a challenge to walk in such footwear, so the front of the shoe was rolled forward or secured to the ankle with laces. The 15th century brought real relief to Europeans' feet when wide-fronted shoes replaced pointy shoes. 16th-century footwear was particularly elegant, with rather high heels covered in leather and mid-thigh high shaft. These boots were ideal for riding and hunting, the main pastimes of the European upper classes. The first woman to wear high heels was Catherine de Medici (1519–1589), who was only 1.50 cm tall and not particularly beautiful. She worried that her husband, King of France, would rather spend time with his favorite than her. Especially given that their marriage was based on purely pragmatic reasons rather than romantic love. With her "invented" high heels, Catherine de Medici felt more beautiful to her spouse and the French people.

Since traditions strictly forbade women to show even the front of their shoes in public, the footwear fashions of the Middle Ages were dictated by men, who gracefully wore red-heeled shoes. These kinds of shoes were first worn by Louis XIV, King of France, who, according to the legend, accidentally stepped into a puddle of bull’s blood and thus set a new fashion trend. Other sources say that he had the red-heeled shoes made for his inauguration. In one way or another, red-heeled shoes became an integral part of the aristocracy.

The glory of women’s footwear dawned between the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th centuries, with a change in dress fashions and a significant shortening of skirts. Then rough leather shoes were quickly replaced by elegant, lightweight shoes made of velvet, brocade, and silk, with heels inspired by men’s fashion. Shoes’ heels became higher as the length of skirts shortened. Ladies were allowed to show off their elegant and richly decorated shoes, which they did with pleasure. The Baroque and Rococo eras were famous for their great balls, influencing shoe fashions. Shoes were decorated even more lavishly with ribbons, bands, and beads, with red, blue, and yellow colors predominating. Incidentally, the shoe collection of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France (1755–1793), was not the largest in Versailles. Charles X, King Louis XVI’s younger brother and Count of Artois would order 365 new pairs of shoes a year. This was due to a penchant for dressing up and the fact that there was always dirt underfoot in the royal court, so it was easier to put on a new pair of shoes than to clean a pair of dirty silk shoes. Of course, ordinary Europeans of the 17th and 18th centuries did not care about balls or ribbon-decorated shoes. Their everyday lives and routines dictated other trends, so many wore simple wooden clogs.

The age of Enlightenment: long live convenience!

The Enlightenment also influenced footwear fashion. Comfortable and practical leather shoes replaced fancy silk shoes. Ergonomically shaped, comfortably fastened boots and half-boots came to predominate both men’s and women’s footwear. The most fashionable shoes of the era were rigid, fur-trimmed, flared-heel boots. The Industrial Revolution did not leave footwear production behind. In 1883, a shoe-making machine patented by American Jan Ernst Matzeliger could produce around 700 pairs of shoes a day, ten times more than a skilled shoemaker.

The last centuries: a breakthrough in footwear evolution!

The early 20th century was a time of fundamental change, both for society and footwear. A radical shift in clothing styles dictated new shoe trends. While both men’s and women’s shoes became even more comfortable, with a clear distinction between sports and casual models, the trend for women’s dress shoes took a radically different direction. There was bold experimentation with the shape and height of the heel, often to grotesque extremes, not to mention the comfort of such models. After the Second World War, the scarcity of raw materials for footwear led designers to look for solutions with materials that were cheaper than leather: felt, linen, rubber, and this led to a revolution in the footwear industry. After that, trends in women’s shoes changed at least every decade, with different trends in models, materials, heel shapes, and heights. Men’s shoe fashion was, for a long time, unaffected by rapid changes in fashion, and so men’s wardrobes tended to be dominated by Oxford and slip-on shoes.

Nowadays, there is a shoe for every occasion to suit every person’s mood and ability. Footwear manufacturers make a sincere effort to balance comfort and aesthetics, using the latest technology and experimenting in the lab with scientists.

Today’s industry in numbers

The global footwear market is a multi-billion dollar industry. Between 14.5 and 19 million pairs of shoes are bought worldwide every year. On average, each person on the planet buys up to two pairs of shoes a year. The US has the highest number of footwear purchases per year – more than seven pairs for every American. Asians and Russians buy around one pair of new shoes a year. In the EU, German and Italian households spend the most money on footwear and clothing.

Most shoes are produced in China, India, and Vietnam. Meanwhile, Italy can claim the title of being the European hub of footwear production. For example, in 2020, Italian shoe exports amounted to nearly 200 million pairs of shoes, and this industry employed more than 74,000 people in 2020. It is estimated that there are around 4,000 footwear manufacturing companies in Italy. In many cases, they also make clothes, but many brands are only known for their footwear. (Source –

Just bare and unquestionable facts:

  • The first slip-on shoes were found in Egypt during archaeological excavations.

  • In ancient Rome, women wore white shoes, and men wore black shoes. Wealthy townspeople would reserve wearing purple or red, richly decorated shoes for special occasions.

  • The Asian steppe dwellers would decorate the soles of their shoes richly so that they could see beautiful ornaments when they sat cross-legged on the ground.

  • Many of us can walk elegantly in high heels. How about running? The world record is held by Majken Sichlau from Denmark, who ran 100 meters in high heels in 13.6 seconds in 2015.

  • Although shoes have been fastened to the feet with various laces since the earliest days of humanity, it was not until 1790 that English inventor Harvey Kennedy secured the tips of the shoelaces with metal clips, which he called “aglets”. These clips, which were initially made of metal but are usually made of plastic, keep textile shoelaces from disintegrating and make it easier to insert them into the holes.
  • The oldest but surprisingly well-preserved shoe was found in a cave in Armenia in 2008. This closed-front leather shoe is 5,500 years old. The scientists named it Areni-1.

As we can see, the history of footwear is inextricably linked to the history and development of humanity. For a long time, shoes themselves have not only had a practical function but have symbolized many things. Moreover, footwear fashions have been influenced for centuries by political and social alterations and advances in technology.

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