Footwear - Good for the Sole? Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Footwear - Good for the Sole?

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A pair of shoes.

The naked foot contains four layers of muscle, ligaments, tendons and nerve endings surrounding the 17 bones. The soles of the feet are one of the few areas on the human body that do not sport hair. The foot also has a greater density of sweat glands and the thickest skin on the body. You might be thinking that the human foot evolved in such a way to help facilitate walking upright, and you would be right. However, humans love to try and improve on nature, so for hundreds of years we have introduced various forms of footwear - and learned to live with the subsequent problems they have caused.

Leaf or Leather

In the first instance - as with toilet paper - mankind used whatever came to hand. Just why they felt the need to use anything to cover their feet is still a matter of conjecture, but it may simply have been to protect them from the cold. Plant material is universally agreed as being the first footwear. Large leaves or bark, tied around the feet with vine threads or the like, were the first sandals. This type of footwear is known to have sprung up around the globe, so there must have been some global need to take the first tentative step towards designer footwear.

The next natural progression was for something more hard wearing and durable than vegetation, and that was animal skin. Before too long, tanning was developed and gave rise to the first bag-type shoes and boots. Shoes can be seen in some ancient cave drawings and they were even found (stuffed with grass) on the 'ice-man', from 3300 BC, discovered frozen in the French Alps. The need for the boot in colder countries was obvious, and its benefits in protecting the extremities self-evident, but the shoe - well, perhaps you had to be there. At any rate, fragments of Bronze Age shoes have survived - just to prove that they needed their feet covered and had the skill to do it. These shoes were really just leather sole pieces wrapped over the toe and up the heel and side of the foot. They were held in place with leather or vine straps; crucially, though, they cannot be called sandals because the toes were covered.

Status Symbol

Egyptians, Syrians, Chinese and all the ancient civilisations independently developed footwear of various descriptions, and all were subject to local tradition and protocols. In Egypt women didn't ordinarily wear shoes or sandals but men did, and shoe-makers were held in high regard. In the East, shoes were fashioned with upturned toes, but had to be removed when going indoors. The Chinese developed shoes with wooden soles which raised the wearer's feet above the mud of the ground on which they walked. Mind you, they also practised binding the feet of girls, because small feet were considered ultra-feminine and binding stunted the foot growth. The Greeks preferred sandals and discarded the Eastern upturned toe, favouring instead the Persian open-toed variety. However, Greek shoes weren't for everyone but were limited to free men; slaves had to remain barefoot.

When the Romans thought of footwear, they came up with various styles that gave some indication of what the wearer did for a living and indeed their social standing. The foot soldier wore a type of latticed sandal called calcei or caliga, with a replaceable sole in order to save on leather. All free men wore shoes, but these were clumsier and much less comfortable than the sandal. Socially, shoes had to be removed when entering a house, and in order to save embarrassment indoor shoes were provided. So with the Romans came slippers as well as shoes, but crucially, they provided us with a last - as in shoemaker's last1. The Romans also saw the divergence of male and female shoe styles. Women's shoes became longer and more slender while the men developed wider, rounder shoes, but both were stitched up the middle of the upper - this was the standard shoe type of the day. There were some Romans, though, that took their footwear very seriously. The Emperor Aurelius, in 200 AD, proclaimed that only he and his successors could wear red sandals, so he'd be pretty miffed today.

Fashion Statement

By the Middle Ages shoes were evolving and styles began to emerge, but they were still pretty basic. The uppers, the part of the shoe which covers the foot - as opposed to the sole, were mainly stitched up the middle and it was then sewn with leather thongs to the sole. These shoes were made inside out and are known as turnshoes today. Patterns were sometimes cut from the upper to create an open shoe - almost a sandal, but there was little call for warm weather shoes in the United Kingdom. Shoes gradually began to evolve into the fashion statement they are today with the addition of buckles and buttons for decoration. The welt, a small strip of leather between the sole and the upper used to stitch one to the other, was introduced about this time, possibly courtesy of the Crusaders who were forever bringing back good ideas from the near and Far East.

By the 12th Century, shoemakers became recognised professionals and have remained so ever since. They were originally known as cordwainers because they worked with leather - the term comes from the Spanish cordovan which is a reddish leather. They should never be mistaken for cobblers who are only trained to repair previously made shoes - shoemakers are a step or two above that.

By the 13th Century, shoes were being ready-made, and produced in large numbers. It is thought they were available in at least three sizes and priced accordingly. It wasn't until the 14th Century that styles again began to shift and the first 'platforms' came into being. Well, they were actually overshoes called Pattens or Clogs, worn to raise your good shoes out of the dirt - much like the Chinese sandals mentioned earlier, only in shoe form. Knights also began a fashion of their own, and not just for armour. They began wearing long-toed shoes known as crackows and there were even laws passed stipulating that the toes could be no longer than 24 inches - perhaps a bit long to be practical today.

Two or Three Feet

In the 1500s high heels were eventually invented, quite possibly by Leonardo da Vinci. Then they gradually evolved into platform shoes proper, known as Chopines. These platforms were anything up to 30 inches high, and were originally for men2. The platforms were in a solid block or in two parts, one towards the front and the other towards the rear of the shoe. They were very much narrower than the width of the shoe, and the actual upper was more like a slip-on 'mule' type affair. When women began wearing them in the late 1500s they required the assistance of a walking stick, or indeed a companion to help with their balance3. Strangely, all shoes were still cut without any difference between the left and right foot.

Shoe styles in the 17th Century were varied. While peasants sported basic leather or wool shoes, the upper classes enjoyed intricately patterned leather or expensive silks. Heels and platforms were still the norm for those who could pay the price, only this time round they were a more manageable three or four inches. Laces had been around since the Middle Ages, but they really burst onto the fashion scene in the 1600s. Gents' shoes by this time were square-toed and sometimes even forked. The women favoured ever more pointed toes known as hooked4. Buckles also began to make it big and Samuel Pepys recorded in his famous diary on 22 January, 1660:

This day I began to put on buckles to my shoes.

Ladies eventually followed suit and, as well as their buckles, had very intricate fine silken shoes - sometimes to match their dresses. This is the beginning of the shoe as an actual fashion accessory. By the end of the 17th Century the sensible one-inch heel lace-up had found its natural home in just about every man's closet, but they weren't alone. The high wooden heels of patterned silk shoes, greatly influence by the French Court, were also in vogue.

Throughout the 18th Century, shoes were still flambuoyant, that is until the French Revolution. This marked the death knell for the 'in your face' shoes, and heels practically disappeared... just in case anyone was in any doubt that all men were equal.

These Boots Were Made For Walking

By the time we get to the 19th Century, footwear was becoming more like the styles still found in stores today. Boots were big business and favoured by both men and women. There were many options: laced leather boots, elastic-sided boots, button boots and, of course, Wellingtons. The earliest Wellingtons appeared in a shop in Northampton priced at £1-5-05 in 1817, but as the century wore on all boots began to reduce to half-boots. Women's footwear by this stage offered many more options than men's; apart from boots, men were more or less stuck with the standard one-inch heel Oxford (or variation) that we still have today. Women could wear a ballet-type pump, high heels or short ankle boots in a variety of colours and materials, including rubber. As ever, Queen Victoria played a leading role in guiding the nation's taste, and on the death of Prince Albert in 1861 black became the standard colour for shoes and boots. Happily, towards the end of the century, shoes were at last made with the differences between the left and right foot accounted for, and sizes were becoming standardised.

History Repeating Itself

The 20th Century brought all of the above history back into play. The century began quietly fashion-wise with the Victorian values lingering on and staid black shoes or boots hiding all sexuality. The next decade, however, saw the rise of the Suffragette and of course war. The gents stuck with the black or brown shoes and boots but the ladies returned to coloured leather and patterns with two-inch or maybe three-inch heels.

The 1920s saw the t-bar, and with skirt lengths shortening thanks to emancipation, how the footwear looked was vitally important. The men still wore boots, but they were strictly 'casual' wear by this time. Two-tone shoes became the essential footwear of the 1930s for both men and women. Despite the hardships of the depression, the ladies got to sport sandals that came in all manner of glittering and glamorous styles; men, however, reverted to black or brown. All this seemed frivolous by the time utility fashion came back in the 1940s. War meant that glamour and fashion were impractical.

Post-war euphoria of the 1950s saw a great divergence in shoe styles. Brothel creepers and loafers became available for men - although not everyone could carry them off. It was as if the shoe as a status symbol was back - a glance at the shoe could tell a lot about a person. Women saw the shoe revealing more of the foot, and stilettos arrived in every colour. Designer shoes were beginning to appear for the masses and Paris and Italy provided the market leaders.

The Swinging Sixties saw the stiletto continue to thrive, but the mini-skirt allowed boots to become the must-have item. Women of the day enjoyed the plastic fashions which enabled affordable shoes with matching handbags to complete the 'London Look'. Flower-power also saw the rise again of the Roman and Greek-type sandals. Men relaxed further with winklepickers, Chelsea boots, and sneakers - all the old dependable styles were still there for them too - as required.

Platforms returned in the 1970s - for both men and women, as did short boots and indeed cowboy boots. Even the most conservative wore stacked heels. The 1980s, a decade which style forgot, led us really to where we are now - anything goes. All manner of footwear designs now live side by side to be worn as appropriate; everything from Doc Martens to designer trainers are acceptable and indeed available, provided your pockets are deep enough.


What else is there to say about shoes or footwear then? Well, musically we've had offerings from Kirsty MacColl - In These Shoes, The BeeGees - Boogie Shoes, Elvis - Blue Suede Shoes, The Eagles - Those Shoes, Adam Ant - Goody Two Shoes, Jimmy Nail - Crocodile Shoes, and not forgetting Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackman's rather bizarre Kinky Boots.

In the movies we've had The Red Shoes (1948), Dead Man's Shoes (2004), In Her Shoes (2005) and Kinky Boots (2005), but the most famous of all movie shoes have to be Dorothy's ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz (1939). Several pairs of these shoes which took Dorothy back to Kansas have been sold in auctions for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Apart from Frank Baum's slippers from Oz, the most famous footwear in literature has to be Cinderella's glass slippers - which many believe only appear due to a mis-translation from the original French. The slippers may well have been fur (French: vair) and not glass (French: verre), but it's unlikely you'll see much reference to that in pantomime any time soon.

There are quite a few superstitions regarding footwear. It is considered by some to be unlucky to trip over a boot - perhaps it depends where you land - and many think new shoes on a table bring at best misfortune, and in the worse case scenario, you'll never marry. Throwing shoes after someone, however, brings good luck on their journey and this may be why we tie boots and shoes on the back of the bride and groom's carriage.

Finally, just the act of wearing shoes has caused mankind many a problem - those added inches of heels have contributed to posture and indeed back problems. Ill-fitting shoes can cause bunions, blisters and circulatory problems. Footwear if treated lightly can cause as many problems as it cures, so when you next go shopping for shoes forget the shoebox with the designer label and concentrate on whether the contents really fit your feet.

1A shaped wooden base on which the soles of shoes could be attached using nails. Today this item is made of metal.2This makes the re-emergence of the platform in the 1970s look small.3Naomi Campbell springs to mind when she 'fell off' her platforms on the catwalk in 1993. Unfortunately, this fate befell many people, including Emma Bunton, and was considered such a danger that the British Standards Institution became involved. 4They took an upward curl at the tip.5One pound and five shillings.

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