Flats, platforms, wedges and stilettos. Sandals, slippers, boots and clogs. Craftsmen and haute designers have been tweaking women’s footwear for centuries to reflect culture, politics and utility, but few have broken through with truly renegade reinventions.
“There are adaptations, but actual world-changing innovation is a lot less common than we might want to believe,” said Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto.
The museum collects, exhibits and interprets footwear from around the world, with 13,000 examples of early designs and styles. Many are still referenced today, from thong sandals of the ancient East to towering chopines of Renaissance Europe.
Semmelhack gives credit to thinkers like Salvatore Ferragamo for his wartime cork wedges and Alexander McQueen for his 10-inch lobster claws, but she points to the rise of celebrity designers themselves as perhaps the most influential development of all.
“Did you even think about who made your Keds? Over the course of the 20th century, shoemakers have gone from anonymous craftsmen to fashion trendsetters,” she said. “It’s a relatively new phenomenon.”
So when, exactly, did shoes begin? No one knows precisely.
Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis theorize that western Eurasians used supportive footwear nearly 30,000 years ago, based on a shortening and weakening of the bones of the smallest four toes while leg muscles remained long and strong. Simpler, more ill-fitting coverings protected feet in harsh climates about 50,000 years ago, according to other research.
The oldest surviving specimens of shoes appear to be sagebrush bark strap sandals found in caves of the Northern Great Basin in Western North America that are thought to be more than 9,000 years old.
Sandals haven’t changed all that much since, or from ancient times in Egypt, Greece and China. Strappy gladiator touches have never gone out of style, bejeweled thongs mimic the practice of placing precious gems on shoes for royalty and platforms in the West can be traced in an almost unbroken timeline right on through to Carmen Miranda and Lady Gaga.
A surviving Spanish chopine mule with tooled leather over cork heels dates to before 1540 as one of the earliest platforms, Semmelhack said. One of the oldest depictions of people in high wooden clogs is “oriental” servants found in stone carvings on a 12th-century church in France, according to the Bata museum’s exhibition On a Pedestal: From Renaissance Chopines to Baroque Heels.
Even older, a wooden Japanese thong platform called a geta, with separate heel pieces, has been traced to 300 B.C.
High, narrow stilettos didn’t come into their own in the West until the 1950s, but chunkier heels detached from the front of a sole were everywhere among the upper crust in the 17th and 18th centuries. The separate high heel, Semmelhack said, “came into fashion in Europe but was worn in the Near East before it was of any interest to Europeans.”
Height has a long history played out in the extreme in chopines nearly 20 inches high in 16th-century Venice.
“Venetian women were actually sequestered and only put on view at certain times of the year,” Semmelhack said. “You don’t actually see the chopines themselves. They were put under women’s dresses. The cost of textiles was so high that wearing chopines meant more fabric and therefore higher status. They needed to lean on two servants and that was also a statement of how incredibly wealthy their families were.”
Color, in the same way as comfort food, often shows up in shoes via long-lasting books and movies, taking women back to their childhood romps through the closets of their mothers.
“Footwear has this special place, as we all know,” said Stuart Weitzman, who has a long relationship with glitzy heels and a new line of chunky jeweled and studded jelly sandals and shoes for spring.
Year after year, he said, his best-selling color in sandals is no color at all.
“Who is the first hero, the first story that every girl ever reads or learns or is told about in her lifetime? The transparent shoe in Cinderella,” Weitzman said. “Before you can read or write, you’re brainwashed into what a transparent shoe can do for your life. It takes everybody back to that time, the mystery.”
Weitzman does sell color as well. A consistent favorite is red. “Red, every year. Dorothy’s ruby slipper is second only to Cinderella’s shoe for so many,” he said.
As mass media and mass production made fashion “more democratic,” according to Semmelhack, politics often revolutionized it. Shoes were no exception. Heels went immediately flat in 1800 and stayed that way through 1850 in response to the French Revolution, a time that ornate heels were preferred by the ruling class, she said.
“Styles became much more widely available with mass production, but they also were much more regimented in terms of design,” Semmelhack said. “It’s interesting that when we head into more difficult economic times, we see a rise of very, very architectural and sculptural footwear.”
Platforms were reborn at the height of the Great Depression, linked to Hollywood glamour and excess. Not all high shoes appear built for torture, though many were promoted then and are sought after now for their slim silhouettes and dainty gaits—the same coveted traits that drove foot binding in China for thousands of years.
Ferragamo is one of the biggest names in women’s shoes. Some have speculated his wedges were inspired by chopines, but few realize he was genuinely interested in women’s comfort, Semmelhack said.
“With the wedge, he says he was trying to make an orthopedic shoe. He was attempting to offer women support all along the instep of their foot. He took courses in biology and the structure of the human foot,” she said. “He was trying to make a very comfortable, fashionable shoe and it just so happened he also created a fashion craze.”
Herman Delman, who founded the Delman brand 91 years ago, also built shoes of style and comfort. His company does a booming business in basic ballet flats today. Over the years, Delman hired Roger Vivier, Herbert Levine and other top designers as he attracted star clients like Marilyn Monroe and Joan Crawford, releasing ready-to-wear copies of shoes he made exclusively for the rich and famous, according to a student-curated exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, Scandal Sandals and Lady Slippers: A History of Delman Shoes.
Delman put out a gold studded platform with black leather crossed straps at the toe in 1939, with strikingly similar silhouettes still selling well. His strappy “Scandal Sandal” of the mid-1940s with ties crossing up the calf was based on a 1920s custom shoe for Irene Castle, a popular ballroom dancer and fashion icon. At the time, Delman called the look “daring.”
Ferragamo debuted his wedges in the 1930s. They stayed strong until the mid-40s, surfacing again during the social upheaval of the Vietnam War and the oil crisis of the late 1960s and ’70s.
“It seems to be about pushing boundaries, escapism,” Semmelhack said. “If Ferragamo was looking to the past, he was looking to the 16th century to be inspired by the last time a platform was in fashion.”
Cycles in shoes and fashion overall have become “tighter” in recent years, she said. “We’re looking back 20 years, even 10, to be inspired. Our concept of vintage is contracting.”