Making Fashion History: A Brief Biography of the Shoe

Biography of shoes

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When you’re getting ready to go about your morning, have you ever stopped and wondered where and when did shoes come from?

Even if you haven’t, the origins of shoes are rather interesting. As you’ll soon find out, shoes in some form have been around for a very long time.

Shoes in the Beginning

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Shoes have been around almost as long as mankind. There are cave drawings in Spain going back some 15,000 years that depict humans with animal skins or fur wrapped around their feet. A well-preserved iceman dated at 5,000 years old was found to have leather foot coverings filled with straw.

In ancient Mesopotamia (c. 1600-1200 BC), soft shoes made of wraparound leather, which were similar to moccasins, were worn by the mountain people who lived on the border of Iran.

Shoes of the Renaissance

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During the Renaissance, in the 15th century, the expansion of guilds ushered in a new era of shoe-making advancements. Leather from the skins of deer, goat, and sheep were the most commonly used material for shoes. During this time, men typically wore slipper shoes, which resembled modern ballet shoes. Soon, the toes of the shoes became wider and squared, a style referred to as duck-billed, and replaced the long, pointed toes of the poulaine. Many believe that duck-billed shoes developed because Charles VIII had six toes on one foot.

As the Renaissance spread throughout Europe, shoes became increasingly wider. Men’s and women’s shoes were actually very similar except for the width. By the end of the period the duck-billed shoes were replaced with slimmer shoes, like the low-cut escaffignons, which were wide and puffed at the toes. Boots were usually reserved for riding and for the military, while the poor wore leather shoes with wooden soles.

The Elizabethan Era Introduces Heels

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The 16th century brought about many changes in Europe, including great strides in shoe fashion. Heels, for example, made their introduction, and narrower shoes become more commonplace during this era. Footwear, as well as fashion, was influenced by the Spanish Court.

The escaffignons were replaced by the Italian pantofle and Venetian heeled slipper. Latchets, or laces, crossing over the tongue from either side, made their appearance as well. Pumps, thin-soled leather shoes worn principally by footmen, were mentioned for the first time, and wealthy men often had shoes with tapered toes decorated with slashing or pinking.

The Baroque and Restoration Influence on Shoes

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The Thirty Years War (1618 to 1648) involved all of Europe and finally absolved the tensions between the Protestants and Catholics. Afterwards, a new cultural style called Baroque developed in Italy around 1600. This was an attempt to renew the Catholic faith by using the arts as propaganda. The Baroque period was passionate, colorful, extravagant, and theatrical, which is perhaps why opera emerged during this period.

Meanwhile, England was involved in a civil war, which ended with the beheading of the King and a period domination by the Puritans.

The result was the emergence of rounded shoes that were thick and sensible. However, the wealthy had extravagant lace ties and decorations on their shoes. Royal men also began to wear shoes with red heels to denote their status. The Puritans favored pointed shoes, interestingly enough.

Revolution’s Effect on Shoes

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By the early 1700s, pointed shoes were back in fashion; however, the buckle became an important part of footwear. Most shoes were plain, and buckles were expensive and elaborate. By the end of the century there were several different shoe-design options for men, but the buckle was replaced after the invention of shoestrings in 1790.

The 1800s established the norm for men’s heel height (one inch), and oxfords started to become acceptable. This era also distinguished appropriate footwear for each occasion; for example, boots and oxfords were used for walking, while the patent oxford or pump became the new fashion for evening dress.

The Industrial Revolution also created new means of making shoes in mass production. These included Lyman Reed Blake’s sewing machine for sewing the soles of shoes to the uppers, in 1858; Charles Goodyear Jr.’s Goodyear Welt, a machine for sewing boots and shoes, in 1871; and Jan Ernst Matzeliger’s automatic method for lasting shoes, in 1883. In 1899, Humphrey O’Sullivan patented the first rubber heels for shoes.

Shoes in the 20th Century

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By the beginning of the 20th century, men could chose between a variety of styles, which included pointed, rounded, or oval toes. Keds, the first sneakers, make their debut in 1917 and were made completely out of canvas.

Two-toned, mainly brown, brogues became the shoe of choice for men by the 1930s. Loafers also make their first appearance around that time. It was soon discovered that by varying the types of leather used, the color, and style detailing, the same type of shoes could be manufactured for either dress or casual wear. Oxfords, brogues, and loafers have been the norm for conservative men ever since.

The ’60s, however, popularized cowboy boots, Chelsea boots, sandals, and moccasins, thanks in part to The Beatles and hippies. During the 1970s, platform soles, basketball shoes, and Doc Martens became increasingly popular for youth.

The ’80s and ’90s continued to see subcultures making their mark on shoes; yuppies, punks, and rappers all had their own styles. Sandals, however, are now accepted during the summer. Regardless of the trend changes, oxfords, brogues, and loafers are still popular and favored among men.

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