History of Women's Shoes

Women's high heels

In cultures where bare feet are customary or only simple sandals are worn, little interest exists in the female foot as a sensual appendage. However, hidden away in tight, decorative shoes and boots, the female foot has been revered as a powerful sexual stimulus in many cultures. Smaller and narrower than a man's foot, the attributes of a woman's comparatively delicate foot has been appreciated and accentuated throughout much of history. This is most apparent in the extreme practice of Chinese foot binding.

For a thousand years in China it was considered refined and sexually attractive for a woman to have bound feet. Outside of weekly washing and perfuming, the feet were kept bound tightly at all times. Several attempts over the years to outlaw the practice by the ruling Manchurians failed and even the Republic made an attempt at stopping the tradition in 1912 when it came to power. The tradition slowly discontinued over time, being finally eliminated in 1949 under the communists. This is by far the most extreme example of sexual differentiation in footwear history. Most cultures cover the female foot differently than the male foot, but in a far less dramatic manner.

Amongst the traditional Inuit of central Northern Canada inlaid furred sealskin boots are designed with vertical patterns for men and horizontal patterns for women. In some cultures it is a matter of who wears the boots. Native Southwestern American Zuni women wear tall white skin boots, while the men wear shorter boots or shoes. Greenlander women's traditional costume includes thigh-high blood-red sealskin boots with decorative appliqués while men wear shorter, darker colored boots.

Fashion Footwear to 1600

In Western culture, it is women who generally wear more architecturally significant or decorous foot coverings. With few exceptions, until the Renaissance, women's footwear was generally less interesting for the simple reason that it was less visible under the longer garments worn, and it was men who were the peacocks in the footwear department.

In ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, women wore sandals consisting of fewer straps and less decoration than men's sandals, baring more toe cleavage. During the late Roman or Byzantine Empire, Christianity brought about radical change from the ancient classical ways. Christian morality considered it sinful to expose the body. St. Clement of Alexandria, in the third century, was already preaching humility for women, commanding them not to bare their toes. Byzantine footwear was designed to cover the feet, and shoes replaced sandals. Roman-style sandals remained the privilege of high-ranking church officials, and abundant decoration was seen as too worldly for the people to wear, appropriate only for the Pope and other prelates.

The largest threat to the Byzantine Empire came with the expansion of Islam that, by 750, had grown to include most of the old Roman territory including Egypt and its Christian Copt population. By the eighth century, Coptic steles (gravestones) depict the deceased wearing shoes and mules, sometimes decorated with gilded figures and etched linear designs, often in sacred imagery. The shoe had evolved to include a pointed toe and peaked throat and was often made of red kid. Called mulleus in Latin, referring to the red color, it is from this connection that the modern term "mule"- for a backless shoe- originates. This style can still be found in parts of the Middle and Far East.

Christianity reinforced the alliance of what was once Rome's domain. During the Carolingian age of Charlemagne (768-814) a close relationship between the various kings and the pope secured the Church in much of Europe unifying the European kingdoms.

Europe began to emerge from the Dark Ages in about 1000 C.E. Christian Europe was uniting into nations, headed by monarchies. These European states began crusades into the Holy Land, bringing themselves into contact with Islamic thought and products. The crusaders brought back silk, embroidery, and the button, whetting the appetites of nobles who craved finery and novelty. The textile arts flourished with the production of quality weavings, embroideries, leather goods, and felts. At the same time, merchants became wealthy importing and exporting these goods, making enough money to dress like nobles. Fashion was now a commodity that expressed the status of its wearer. Elitism could be expressed through a sumptuous display of fashion excess.

The first footwear fashion excess was the elongated pointed toe, said to have originated in the late 1100s. The style was popular in the late 1100s but subsided from fashion, and when reintroduced from Poland in the early 1300s it had become known as a poulaine or crakow, reflecting its supposed Polish origin.

Expensive materials and excessive styles were royalty's way of staying ahead of the moneyed bourgeoisie. If the sheer cost of dressing well did not create enough of a gap between the well-to-do and the have-nots, then edicts were placed upon materials, styles, and decorations restricting their use to persons of appropriate status. The church also set restrictions against obscene or excessive fashions. Together, these governing bodies attempted to keep the classes in their place, making each identifiable by their dress.

In England, in 1363, Edward III proclaimed a sumptuary law that limited the length of the toe to the wearer's income and social standing; commoners earning less than 40 livres per year were forbidden the use of long toes; those who made more than 40 livres annually could wear a toe no longer than six inches; a gentleman no more than twelve inches; a nobleman no more than 24 inches; and a prince was unlimited in the length he chose.

Northern Europe continued to don the style until the end of the fifteenth century, even though Italy, southern France, and Spain essentially stopped wearing the protrusive toe, choosing instead to have less pointed footwear made of the finest kid leather or silk.

When length finally became old fashioned, width became the next fashion excess. Popular in the English Tudor court and other northern European states of the sixteenth century, shoes with widths that extended well beyond the foot were known variously as the hornbill, cow-mouth, or bearpaw. This new dimension suffered the same excesses as the long toe. Under England's Queen Mary, another sumptuary law was passed, and although its wording is lost, it can be assumed that the width of the toe was similarly limited according to social status and wealth of its wearer.

The last dimension was now to be explored-height. The ancient Greeks first put platform sandals on the feet of their actors to give them distinction, suggesting the performer was playing an important person. Ancient Greek women adopted cork-soled versions, called Cothurnus. Fifteenth-century aristocratic Venetian women donned stilted mules or shoes, called chopines, to reflect their high social status. Fashioned in velvet with tack-work or white alum tanned kid with punch-work brogueing, chopines not only added height, but also décor to the silhouette. Although called "depraved" and "dis-solute" by the church, the style traveled across Europe where by 1600 even Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet "Your Ladyship is nearer to heaven than when I saw you last by the altitude of a chopine." Maidservants were required to steady the wearers of some of the tallest chopines that could reach a height of up to 39 inches (one meter). Chopines fell from fashion when prostitutes donned them, ruining their status for women of breeding. Heels, introduced in the 1590s, eventually displaced the platform mules, although some extant examples of chopines date as late as 1620.

Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Drawing of vintage womens high heel shoes

When heels were first added to shoes in the 1590s they were only about an inch in height. Women's heels took on greater elevations during the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715) in France. Heels towered two to three inches, although "well-heeled" women's skirts made their shoes virtually invisible. The heel expressed the status of the wearer as they were quite literally at a higher level than the hordes of common folk. Under Louis XIV, red heels were worn strictly at court. Although this law existed only in France, by restriction the color came to represent the power and status of the aristocratic elite across Europe.

Three different heel types developed in Europe during the eighteenth century. The Italian heel was tall and spiked, like a stiletto. The French heel was of mid-height and curvaceous and later became known as the Louis heel; and the English heel was thicker and generally low to mid-height. Fashionable continental European women were more inclined to be at court or at home in an urban setting, so their heels could generally be more delicate, while English women of breeding tended to live at their country estates for most of the year, so a thicker heel was necessary for the more natural terrain they traversed.

When the skirts of French gowns inched toward the ankles in the mid-eighteenth century, suddenly there seemed to be an erotic interest in the high-heeled shoe, as it made the foot appear smaller and narrower, and gave the ankle a delicate shape. In the meantime, due to practicality, men were now solidly planted on the ground with heels of less than an inch. It was appropriate for a gentleman to walk upon a muddy, cobbled street that required a low-heeled shoe or boot. A lady of quality, however, did not walk the streets and likely traveled by coach or other means, so a high heel was appropriate for most occasions she would encounter.

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries an increasing fondness for luxurious fabrics and decorative trimmings ensued. European-made damask and brocaded silks had been produced in Italy and France until the emigration of Protestant French Huguenots in the last quarter of the seventeenth century. They brought with them the knowledge of silk production when they resettled throughout Protestant Europe, from Spitalfields, England, to Krefeld, Germany. The costly development of this new industry, however, kept domestically produced silks at a higher price than imported Chinese silks.

Chinese silks were usually brocaded patterns of abstract geometric designs, made specifically for the western market. To support the development of a domestic silk industry, England banned the wearing of Chinese silk in 1699; other countries proclaimed similar edicts. Silks produced in Europe followed the Oriental taste of abstract patterns and became known as "bizarres," remaining in fashion until the 1730s when tastes changed and grand floral designs came into vogue.

The decoration of shoes used many techniques: silk embroidery, applied cord passementerie, and silver and gold thread embroidery that was made by professional male embroiderers who belonged to embroidery guilds.

Originally, buckles came into fashion because of their utility. Samuel Pepys refers to putting on buckles for the first time in 1660. By the end of the seventeenth century, buckles overtook the standard of ribbon laces. Both men and women increasingly suffered from buckle mania throughout the eighteenth century. Buckles grew in size and became more elaborate, set with showy paste and semiprecious stones. Men's buckles were larger but both sexes displayed their shoe jewelry during a bow and curtsy with extended foot-the appropriate method of introduction of the day.

By the end of the eighteenth century mercantile and industrial wealth had created a strong, affluent, educated, yet politically under-represented middle class who were set between an ever-deepening rift of the noble elite and the working poor. The American and French revolutions exploded out of this imbalance, and, in the end, demo-graphics won. The middle classes rose to power and would become the brokers of taste.

In the early months of the French Revolution, the French National Assembly demanded that all deputies give up their valuable shoe buckles for the benefit of the treasury. The legislative session of 22 November 1789 opened with le Marechal de Maille making the patriotic gift of his gold buckles.

The Nineteenth Century

Following the French Revolution, plain leather footwear became the mode. Durable and affordable, it was considered more democratic than the fussily embroidered and expensive silk shoes previously preferred by the elite. Heels also fell from use after the French Revolution, in keeping with the new democratic philosophy that all people are born equal. The new French and American republics looked to classical models of democracy for inspiration and excavations at Pompeii and from Napoleon's military campaigns in Egypt brought renewed interest in the ancient world and provided inspiration for neoclassical designs.

Women's fashion took on the silhouette of a Greek column. Neutrals of white and tan were complimented by dark tones of the classical world: Pompeiin red, crocodile green, and rich gold. The sandal was revived during the neoclassical period, although not with great success, especially in the colder northern European climates where instead, shoes were fashioned with cutouts lined with colored underlays or painted with stripes to emulate sandals. During the Napoleonic wars an inconsistent fashion image existed. In shoes, the use of heels and the shapes of toes varied, with no one style predominating. The square toe, introduced as early as the 1790s, did not become the main style until the late 1820s but would remain so for the next half century.

As factories disfigured the horizon, many longed for the picturesque qualities of an unspoiled landscape. A naturalism movement brought long country promenades into fashion; ladies began to wear "spatterdashes," leggings adapted from men's military dress that protected stockings from spatters and dashes of mud. Walking became a fad called "pedestrianism" and a prescribed activity for women. Boots were worn for this activity as a sensible alternative to fashion shoes. Ankle boots, referred to as demi-boots or half boots, found international appeal in this period.

By the time Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837 a sentimental, romanticized movement had swept popular thought. Women became expressions of virtue and femininity, their conservative costume and demure decorum reflected conscious gentility. Fine slippers of kid and silk were made in great quantities in Paris and exported around the world. Soles, which had been made without left or right definition for more than 200 years, were exceptionally narrow now and the delicate uppers tended not to last long as they were pulled under the sole at the ball of the foot, deteriorating with one wearing. Colored footwear found favor during the 1830s with ankle-length skirts, but fell from use for the next two decades. The long, full skirts of the mid-nineteenth century hid the feet from view, with perhaps the occasional peep at a vamp when the woman walked or waltzed across a floor. By the mid-1850s, black or white footwear was deemed by fashion delineators to be the most elegant and tasteful choice, a standard that would last for many years.

However, after the mid-1850s, with the introduction of wire frame "crinoline" skirt supports, skirts tended to tip and swing, exposing the foot and ankle. This brought about interest in the decoration of shoe vamps. Machine chain-stitched designs with colorful silk underlays, dubbed "chameleons," became fashionable for home and evening wear. For daytime, however, boots became modest essentials underneath the wire-frame supported skirts. Side-laced boots called "Adelaides" in England, after William IV's consort, were made for most outdoor occasions until improvements in the elasticity of rubber resulted in the development of elastic thread which, woven into webbing, was used for ankle-boot gussets. Elastic-sided boots were referred to as "Garibaldi" boots in Europe after the Italian statesman who united Italy during the 1860s, and as "Congress" boots in the United States after the American Congress. Front-laced boots came back into fashion by 1860. Called "Balmorals," after Queen Victoria's Scottish home, the style was deemed suitable for informal daywear and sporting occasions at first, but by the 1870s had become the more common closure of all boots. Button boots were introduced in the 1850s, but were generally not favored until the 1880s when their tight fit and elegant closure flattered the slim ankle and foot more than laced styles.

Heels were reintroduced on ladies' footwear during the late 1850s, but did not find universal appeal until the late 1870s. Historicism was an important movement of the mid-nineteenth century; Rococo and Baroque styling was evident on shoes in the 1860s with a return to buckles and bows. Large, multiple loop bows were called "Fenelon," after the seventeenth-century French writer. Mules, too, came back into fashion as part of the historical revival of the ancien regime.

Exoticism was another important movement of the nineteenth century. Via the Crimean war, Turkish embroideries were exported for the production of shoe uppers in the late 1850s and when Japan opened its doors to foreign trade in 1867, a taste for all-things Oriental made a strong comeback. Chinese embroidered silks or European embroidered silks in the taste of Chinese and Japanese textiles were in fashion and a Japanese-influenced palette of colors resulted in brown leather footwear coming into vogue, which would become a fashion staple.

By the late 1880s the square toe had finally fallen from fashion, replaced by rounded and even almondshaped toes and all shoes were now being made with right and left sole definitions. Business began to decline for hand shoemakers as mass manufacturers standardized sizes and provided widths for customer fit. Improvements in American manufacturing methods and machinery, as well as cheaper production costs positioned the Americans as the leading footwear manufacturers for the next fifty years.

The Twentieth Century

Black, brown, and white footwear predominated until the 1920s. Colored footwear was made almost entirely for evening dress, as it was seen as inappropriately gaudy for street or daywear. After the start of World War I in 1914, hemlines began a steady climb up the leg, so that by armistice the sensuous curves of the instep and ankle were exposed. The climbing hemline made the gap between the top of the boot and bottom of the hemline an unsightly distraction. The boot was generally abandoned from fashion, although a "Cossack" boot, or pull-on style was introduced and found some success in the late 1920s.

The impact of the shoe on the complete silhouette now had to be calculated to find a complimentary style. During the 1920s, short and curvy heels grew taller and straighter, which tightened the calf muscle, slimming the appearance of the ankle and foreshortening the foot making it appear smaller. Even the vamp was cut lower to expose more of the instep.

High heel shoes

By the 1930s, shoemakers had become shoe designers. Color, shape, and decoration literally exploded at the feet of fashion. A wide variety of spectators, oxfords, pumps, sandals, brogues, and other styles filled the shoe stores. Salvatore Ferragamo revived the chopine in 1937, using cork to create platform soles. Internationally, the style found limited success, but with the beginning of World War II (1939-1945) the style grew in popularity. The war resulted in a shortage of leather for civilian footwear; thick wood or cork soles and substitute leather uppers made of raffia, hemp, or textile substituted. In the United States, where rationing was less severe than in Europe, platform shoes were more often made of leather, but women were rationed to two pairs of shoes per year.

The tall tapered heel remained in fashion from the late 1920s to the mid-1950s with only subtle changes in form until the Italian heel, renamed the "stiletto," became the fashion in the late 1950s. Tall and very slender with a metal core, the heel was named after the weapon for a reason. The narrow heel created pressure of hundreds of pounds per square inch with every step, pockmarking linoleum and wooden floors. Visitors to the Louvre were required to don plastic heel caps to protect the ancient floors. The stiletto heel, paired with a sharp pointed toe, was the most aesthetically complimentary shoe style ever designed. The pointed toe visually narrowed the foot and the high heel tightened the calf muscle, slimming the ankle. Medically, it was the worst combination ever created. Many women turned their ankles on the metal spikes, catching the tips in manholes, subway grates, or even cracks in the sidewalk; the high heel forced the foot forward into the pointed toe, which curtailed the toes, causing bunions and hammertoes.

In reaction, a low-heeled, square boot came back into fashion in the mid-1960s. Paired with miniskirts, the boot highlighted the leg and gave a youthful Élan to the fashions of the day. Boots came on the fashion scene at the same time as the popular "go-go" dances of the day and quickly became known as go-go boots-usually white ankle boots.

The early 1970s saw the return of the platform that accomplished two feats at once. Women's liberation was reflected in the elevated soles that put women on an equal footing to men. At the same time, platforms were complimentary to the length of the leg, made apparent in hot pants, miniskirts, and long-legged pants.

Since the early 1970s fashion footwear has been eclipsed by the sports-shoe phenomenon. More runners, joggers, cross-trainers, and basketball shoes have been sold than high-fashion shoes on an annual basis. Scientific advances in fit and comfort has been paired with conscious design and celebrity marketing, creating a mad frenzy for every new design released. Fashion experts may scoff at sports shoes as fashion, but many designers have paid homage to the style in upscale versions over the past thirty years.

High-fashion footwear of the last quarter of the twentieth century consisted almost entirely of revivals. The stiletto-heeled, pointed-toe shoe of the late 1950s and early 1960s was the mainstream high-fashion style of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Every time the platform shoe has come back into fashion it has been heavily inspired by its previous incarnation. The platform shoes of the 1990s were many times perfect recreations of their 1970s predecessors, to the point where it was nearly impossible to tell the difference between the retro and the true vintage versions.

Subtle tweaking of heel shapes, toe shapes, decorations, colors, and materials, and the combinations in which they are used are the only elements that define the past thirty years of fashion footwear from previous styles. Multiplicity is key to the fashion footwear of the early 2000s: stilettos, platforms, chunky heels, low heels, pointed toes, square toes, boots, shoes, and ballerina flats. Virtually all styles are available at the same time, and all of them are at the height of fashion.

See also Boots; Footbinding; High Heels; Inuit and Arctic Dress; Sandals; Shoes; Men's Shoes; Sneakers; Sport Shoes.


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Durian-Ress, Saskia. Schuhe: vom späten Mittelalter bis zur Gegenwart Hirmer. Munich: Verlag, 1991.

Salvatore Ferragamo. The Art of the Shoe, 1927-1960. Florence, Italy: Centro Di, 1992.

Rexford, Nancy E. Women's Shoes in America, 1795-1930. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2000.

Swann, June. Shoes. London: B.T. Batsford, Ltd., 1982.

--. Shoemaking. Shire Album 155. Jersey City, N.J.: Park-west Publications, 1986.

Walford, Jonathan. The Gentle Step. Toronto: Bata Shoe Museum, 1994.

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History of Women's Shoes