Medieval origin of modern shoes

Shoes by Gianni Morano 2013
Shoes by Gianni Morano, Couture 2013

As it turns out much of the fashionable footwear of today - high heels, pointed toes, platforms - derives from medieval European or Asian precedents.
The high heel origin has been traced back to the horse-men of ninth-century Persia whose high stacked heels helped hold their feet in the stirrups. The idea eventually caught on in Europe in boots for men on horses. So, actually men started wearing high heels before women did.

Women shoes with wooden Louis heels 1740-1750 England
A pair of women's shoes, c.1740-1750, England. Green and ivory silk damask with wooden "Louis" heels.

One-to-two inches high heels were introduced into female footwear only in the 17th century. The highest heels at the time had the shoes of Louis XIV of France who was not tall at all, could not bear to be shorter than many of his court men and so wore 4 inches heels made for him by his personal shoemaker. The heels, still known as the Louis heels, had a concave curve that spread slightly at the base.

Venetian chopines, 16th century, The pedestals measure over 50 cm in height. Museo Palazzo Mocenigo, Venice

There were many variations of footwear that could inspire the modern platform shoes. Chopines, for example. They appeared in Europe in the 15th century and were especially popular in Venice. These towering wooden overshoes lifted the Venetian beauty as much as 50 cm off the ground. Because of such height a woman's walk in chopines was awkward and unstable. So, the Venetian woman who wore them was generally accompanied by an attendant on whom she would balance.

Spanish ladies wearing chopines, 1540
Spanish ladies wearing chopines. Watercolour, c.1540. Museo Stibbert, Florence

Chopines might have been associated with the level of nobility and grandeur of the woman. Though they were usually hidden out of sight beneath a long skirt their cork structure was often covered with leather or velvet and decorated with lace or tassels.

Manchu shoes, 19th century
Manchu shoes, early 19th century, China. Shoes or No Shoes? Museum, Belgium

Another possible platform shoes precedents are the Manchu shoes. The shoes consisted of two separate parts: a fabric upper and a wooden heel. The upper part was made of silk and decorated with embroidered flowers, birds and fruits. The heel was usually 2 to 6 inches high, wrapped in white cloth, and attached at the arch of the shoe. Its imprint looked like that of a horse's hoof and such form of the pedestal was for stability purpose.

Turkish wooden takunya decorated with mother of pearl, 19th century
Turkish wooden takunya decorated with mother-of-pearl, 19th century. Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto

A Japanese man wearing geta. Utagawa Toyokuni III. Woodblock print, 1830-40. Brooklyn Museum  

Many platform-like styles of footwear, including chopines, were intended to elevate the feet and clothes away from mud and dirt of the streets or, as with Turkish takunya worn in hamams, from the wetness of the floor. In some cases, the height of the shoes gave additional benefits. For example, the pace of the Japanese courtesan wearing high geta was so slow that it allowed the street crowd to admire and study the courtesan's beauty and dress more closely.

A chess game gone wrong. Renaud de Montauban Bruges, 1462-1470. Bibliotheque Nationale de France 

The fashion of extending and curling the toes of the shoe appeared and reached amazing lengths in western Asia in the Ottoman Empire during the twelfth century. The longest known "Turkish" slipper measures some 30 inches from heel to toe. Contact with the Middle East during the Crusades brought the fashion of pointed toes to Europe, but they didn't reach extreme lengths until the fourteenth century. Called poulaines, cracow or pike this style had a pointed toe extending no less that four inches. Some toes were so long (20in) that they required anchoring at the knee or even at the waist.

Medieval poulaines on display at the Narodni Muzeum, Prague 

The length of the toe was often a measure of the wearer's status. In England, the association with status was so firm and thought so important that toe length was governed by royal decree: kings and princes, 2.5 feet; nobles, 2 feet; knights, 18 inches, etc. Ladies' shoes were not quite so extravagant in length, perhaps because of the difficulty of pairing long skirts with long toes. The new way of walking, with the feet raised high and wide to avoid tripping over the shoes, was considered stylish. Such shoes were called Satan's Claws by the Church because they were believed to encourage immorality plus they made it impossible for the wearer to kneel down in prayer. The Black Plague of 1347 they claimed was God's punishment on humankind for wearing sinful footwear.

The shoes on the photo above are by Tom Ford and they were inspired by so called Lotus shoes. The Lotus shoes have a peculiar form because they were made for the reshaped feet of Chinese women. The practice of foot-binding had come to be a widely practiced custom among Chinese women by the 13th century. The bound foot was called the Golden Lotus and represented ideal feet of bud-like shape and small size.

Lotus shoes, late 19th century, China. Shoes or No Shoes? Museum, Belgium

The shoes were often made of expensive coloured silk brocades and velvet, with heavily embroidered designs of flowers and Taoist symbols of prosperity and happiness.

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  1. Your posts never fail to delight me!! I knew a little about some of the shoes you mention but thoroughly enjoyed learning more of the history. Someday I must visit that shoe museum too.

    I could spend hours looking at your blog. XXOO

  2. As always, Olga, you write such interesting things about the history of clothing and fashion, and the images are fabulous. I adore the shape of Louis heels, and it's interesting to see how wearable they still are today. The platform creations are astonishing, works of art, but surely unbelievably difficult to move around in! The Lotus shoes are desperately sad, yet another example of the damage we are willing to inflict on ourselves in the name of fashion and beauty... xxx

  3. Wonderful article, Olga! I learned a lot. I also enjoy looking for connections between things, and find it all around me. :)

  4. Fashion is so amazing... Every culture has its own interpretation of closes/shoes... Thank you, Olga. I've learned a lot! (никогда не обращала раньше внимания на вытянутые носки...)

  5. fascinating post, i bought a book about the history of women shoes some years ago and so i´ve already seen some of the platform shoes above, it´s so fascinating that those platforms are nothing new!!! and also i learned something new about japanese and chinese shoe fashion back then.

  6. Those shoes are so unque!


  7. Fantastic article. Those chopines are just beautiful, I love the painting of the Spanish ladies wearing theirs. The Lotus Shoes are works of art but they make me wince just thinking about the pain involved in foot binding. x

  8. Wow, what a great read, Olga! Very interesting and I learned a lot!

    There is a lot of beauty in shoes, but also a lot of discomfort and suffering, right?

    Btw, do you know that there is a small hype in South America (I thought in Mexico) of guys wearing western boots with really XXXXXL curved, long toes/points? I saw pictures and it is amazing.