A History of Women’s Shoes

A History of Women’s Shoes

The history of women's shoes is a fascinating one, full of the kind of bizarre factoids that would interest even the most serious pub quizzer. It’s one that’s been shaped by the fashions of the time over the last 100 years, taking in various political movements along the way.

The full story, however, stretches back much further than the 20th century. The history of women's footwear and the fashions and political movements that have dictated its changes, goes back hundreds, even thousands, of years.

Here we explore how, when and why women's shoe styles have changed over time and how those changes have affected, and have been affected by, the wider world.

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A History of High Heels

There is no more typically 'feminine' item of footwear than the high heel. They have long been seen as a typically modern invention, however, the history of high heels is longer than you would think, with a fair few surprises. For example, high heels were not originally intended to be worn by women at all!

High heels began back in ancient Greece, where actors wore platform shoes (at the time elevated with wood or cork) to represent social class, with the characters of a higher social standing wearing higher heels. Social class comedy was around even then!

There are also traces found in ancient Egypt, where high-heeled shoes found by historians have been linked to religious ceremonies of the time. We’re not entirely sure of the purpose, but we can assume that the higher heels were supposed to lift the wearer closer to the gods.

It wasn't until the 15th century that the notion of a high heel being 'feminine' began to take shape, with the first shoes of note being the hideous “Chopines”. These were first worn in Venice in the 1400s and were designed with dramatic platforms (often as high as 24 inches) in order to keep the 'real' shoes (which were, at the time, generally made from easily stained material such as satin) out of the mud that used to clog the streets.

Platforms slowly developed into a cultural and decorative symbol that spread across Europe, until it reached England and France. There, the high heel was actually outlawed for a time, as it was the shoe favoured by prostitutes! Around this time (the mid-16th to 17th century), the high heel was also ridiculed by members of high society, religious commentators, and even the great William Shakespeare.

It wasn't until 1533 that the idea of a low sole with a high heel was seen as 'ladylike' thanks to the royal wedding of Catherine de Medici, who married the Duke of Orleans whilst wearing 'riding heels'. Up until the 19th century, however, heels were still largely worn only by aristocratic men such as Louis XIV of France, who (it is said) wore heels often to make up for his diminutive size. He even created a trademark red heel that he demanded all male members of his court to adopt.

In the Victorian era, the modern heel really began to take shape. Advanced sewing technologies allowed for a more gentle, comfortable heel with a focus on the curved instep to show “femininity and refinement”. These were still quite impractical, however.

Stiletto heels, now hugely popular, weren’t actually seen until 1954. This style of heel was invented by Roger Vivier and given a name that means, appropriately, “thin dagger” in Italian. Over the next 50 years, the heel wavered in popularity, but one thing is certain: stilettos will always hold a place in the hearts (and souls) of fashion-conscious women.

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A History of Women’s Shoemaking

Whilst it began life as a purely practical invention, the humble shoe has, over hundreds of years, evolved into a status symbol and a booming industry, and is often as much about art as functionality. As they have evolved, of course, so have the materials and techniques that go into making them. The earliest shoes are thought to have been made from wraparound leather, around 40,000 years ago! Therefore, really, the history of women’s shoes dates back to then!

Shoemaking really developed into an art-form, however, in Europe during the early Baroque period. The materials used reflected the wearer’s social class (as they had done for centuries). So, for example, commoners would wear shoes made from leather, whereas aristocrats would wear similar designs, only made from wood.

At this time, there was no real difference between women's shoes and men's shoes. It wasn't until the 15th century that shoemakers began to experiment with softer fabrics, such as silk, and it wasn't until the 19th century that women's and men's shoes began to differ (particularly in heel and toe shapes). Until 1850, there wasn't even a difference between left shoes and right shoes!

As technology continued to develop in the first few decades of the 20th century, the shoemaking process became simpler, which allowed shoemakers to experiment more with the design of women's shoes. Suede became a very popular shoemaking material in the 1950s due to its affordability and pleasing texture, and wooden heels were still very much the functional choice. Throughout history, however, leather has remained one of the most desirable materials for women's shoes, due to its flexibility, durability and refined elegance.

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A History of Women's Shoes: Timeline

The First Shoes (1550 BC) – The first shoes were basic, wrap-around leather creations that actually quite closely resembled today’s moccasins.

Roman Shoes (0050 BC) – Indoors, Roman women generally wore sandals, a style of shoe that is still popular today in the summer months. They also wore outdoor boots called “Calcei” that covered the toes and ankles, and had leather straps. There were not really any differences between men’s and women’s footwear. Romans did, however, use their footwear to indicate the power and social status of the wearer, as we’ve mentioned above.

Renaissance Women's Shoes – In the middle ages (between the 5th and 15th centuries), footwear continued to be more practical than fashionable and was generally made from leather. It wasn't until the Renaissance era that shoes began to more closely resemble the functional and fashionable items we wear today.

Rounded toes were first seen around the 15th century and high heels (then known as “Chopines”) began to emerge in the 16th and 17th centuries for what began as practical purposes. Casual women's shoes around this era were generally soft slippers, made from delicate fabrics like silk.

18th and 19th Century Women's Shoes – During the 18th century, the Napoleonic Wars were happening, meaning many shoes were made for military purposes. Once the wars had passed, however, the 19th century (and the industrial revolution with it) had begun to dawn, bringing with it new manufacturing processes that allowed shoemakers to create shoes that were practical and attractive.

These practices also led to the differentiation between men’s and women’s shoes, with small, delicate pumps and more elaborate high heels favoured by women and men favouring more functional leather boots.

Early 20th Century Women's Shoes – During the Edwardian era, other shoe styles appeared, with lower 'Oxford' heels, fabric pumps and 'flats' the dominating women’s shoe trends. There were also high, lace-up women’s boots, colloquially now known as 'Edwardian Boots', which were often heavily embroidered.

1920/30s – The 20s and 30s brought with them a combination of glamour and budget-consciousness. As the world blossomed into an altogether more liberal place, women's shoes adapted and became more flamboyant. 'Cuban' heels and rounded toes became the standard for formal shoes, in order to make the feet appear more petite. The most popular design of the 20s was the T-strap, which included a strap over the front of the shoe that was often decorated with beads and other embellishments.

In the 30s, meanwhile, the 'Oxford' design, with its subtle laces or bows and higher 'Spanish' heels became popular, with improvements in leather tanning meaning more colour options and two-tone combinations were also available.

1940/50s – During World War II, shoes were very restrained, however once the war ended they became much less so. General styles remained largely similar to the shoes worn in previous decades, but the designs became more elaborate. The slingback also made its debut in this period, with the exposed heel leading to it being considered a very 'sexy' shoe. It was, however, notoriously uncomfortable! Slip-in heel pumps were also popular, offering a more casual alternative to the Oxfords and slingbacks.

The 1950s also saw the birth and rise of the stiletto heel, with designers falling over themselves to design the skinniest one!

1960s/70s – Comfort continued to take a backseat to glamour throughout the 60s and 70s, at least when it came to formal wear. Day-to-day the 60s was, however, very much the era of the teenager, so alongside the higher heels favoured by their mothers, young girls were experimenting with function over fashion. Pumps and trainers became popular amongst young women for daily wear, with pointed flat shoes with low heels favoured for evening and social wear.

The 60s also saw the Mary Jane shoe take off, with its Cuban heel and neat, single strap design finding a perfect middle-ground between comfort and style. These were the perfect dancing shoes for the time, which was probably why they became so popular. The swinging 60s and 70s were all about the music after all! On that note, the 70s also saw the rise of disco culture and the return of super-high heels, though the heels were generally fairly chunky to allow for greater comfort and more decoration.

1980s/90s – This era was all about the trainers, though there were other styles that coloured the decades that 'taste forgot'. Jelly shoes, first seen in the 1970s and made from cheap PVC plastic, were popular with young girls. Platform shoes continued to find their place in certain circles. And we mustn’t forget the return of stilettos as power-dressing came in, but this was the era of the boot above all others.

The frankly ridiculous Moon Boots were the surprise hit of the 80s and Dr. Martens, often heavily decorated, were worn by all 'alternative' generation X kids in the 90s. The 90s was the era when women discovered that being comfortable and being 'on-trend' didn't need to be mutually exclusive.

21st Century Women's Shoes – At the dawn of the new century, fashions changed surprisingly little when it came to footwear. Ugg-style boots were the big story of the early 00s, and big-name designer brands gained more prominence, but in general, the 'noughties' acted as more of an evolution than a revolution. Indeed, even the notorious 'Crocs' were an evolution of the jelly shoe!

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Conclusion

History, of course, is always being written, so it's impossible to tell exactly where the fashions of the future will take us. But if this exploration into the weird and wonderful history of women's shoes has taught us anything, it’s that women are always at the forefront of design and are always putting their best foot forward.

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