A Brief History Of Footwear, From The Dignified To The Ridiculous

Working at Oak Street Bootmakers, George Vlagos is refining a craft that’s taken thousands of years for humanity to build from the sole upward. In fact, as long as there have been human beings, it turns out, there have been people who just want a nice pair of shoes.

Believe it or not, the sandal and the slipper are pretty much the ancestors of all modern footwear, no matter how ridiculous it got. The first sandals date to 8,000 BCE, and that’s just what we can prove; shoes might date to 40,000 BCE, according to anatomical evidence. Yes, one of the first things we invented, as a species, was the flip-flop.

For colder climates or people with toenail fungus too grotesque for even the era, there was the turnshoe, essentially a big leather sock you tied around your ankle. Eventually, that evolved into the soled shoe, as everyone realized you wanted something thicker and tougher between you and, well, everything people were dropping onto the ground. Artisans became involved to offer better shoes… and, in some cases, things got just a little ridiculous.

Take the Air Jordans of the 15th century, the Crakow, so popular they were even part of ceremonial armor:

Yes, it really was quite the fashion to wear elf booties with huge points. As to why, well, the shoes were common in the East, and medieval Europe was nothing if not obsessed with the East.

Another good example is the high-heeled shoe. High heels started for practical reasons: As people began to buy finer clothes, and as sanitation procedures refused to improve accordingly, the richer among us began to want to be elevated out of the muck literally, as well as figuratively. Hence, shoes like the chopine:

Yes, that would be the original platform shoe. Ladies didn’t want their dresses dragging through the muck, or for that matter to trash the beautiful shoes underneath that dress, so they climbed onto these things. If it looks awkward, it was.

Soon, however, everyone realized high heels made you seem taller, which was a great benefit to their target market. Namely, men. Louis XIV insisted on them, and whatever the king wore, the rest of the court wore soon thereafter. The Persian put them to far more practical use: High heels were horse-riding shoes, and let Persian horsemen stand higher in the saddle when needed. The high heel actually became feminine because a fad for wearing clothing styled after that of men swept through the aristocracy in the 1630s, and for some reason, it stuck.

These fads are silly, to us, but they brought artistry and technology to bear on shoemaking. Shoes became better-made, more comfortable, and easier to wear as artisans developed their craft and brought more to bear on it. The Industrial Revolution, though, started driving cobblers and bootmakers out of business; why pay for quality when machines could make it cheaper? In many ways, Vlagos is preserving one of the most ancient arts humanity has, and we’re better for it.