Zeitgeist: Shoes, the good,
the bad, the ugly
Blogger & Shoe Savant
Bone needles and bespoke clothing
During the Upper Paleolithic
period (40k- 25k years ago)
needles with eyes became
precision tools used for sewing
skins and furs. The long-held
belief, sandals were the first
shoes, although that remains
Shoe finds come from a wide variety of geographical locations supporting the
theory shoe styles were spontaneous innovations made from available resources
and consistent with the development of local crafts.
Pre historic shoes demonstrate a surprising range of styles that would not be out
place in a modern shoe store.
Caligae: Hob-Nailed Sandals
Heavy-soled hob-nailed military
boots issued to Roman legionary
soldiers and auxiliaries throughout
the Roman Republic and Empire.
A better shod army marched further
across rougher terrain, and the
Empire expanded beyond any other.
After the Fall of the Empire,
parochial shoemakers carried on the
Roman traditions keeping the trades
Clothing: Decoration, modesty or protection ?
Long been debated, as to what came first, with
the common consensus it was protection, yet the
evidence to support this hypothesis is scant.
Modesty as a concept, is also comparatively new
in the history of the west, and has no more
linage than a couple of millennium.
This leaves the primary function of footwear as
According to Freud we became seeing
beings and clothing provided the safest
distance to assess a stranger.
Poulaines: Long Toed Shoes
In the 11th century, across Europe, the length of men’s shoes got longer and longer
until they were 24 inches longer than the foot. Despite papal laws to prevent lower
classes from wearing poulaines, the fashion continued unabated for another four
hundred years. No clear explanation has ever been proffered to explain this strange
European Chivalry and Courtly Love
European courtly love flourished in the early 12th
century and high-minded ideals of true romance
were spread throughout when troubadours sang
openly of love’s joys and heartbreaks in daringly
personalised terms, extolling the ennobling effects
of the lover’s’ selfless devotion.
Troubadour’s songs promoted a love yearned for,
and at times rewarded by, the solace of every
delight of the beloved except physical possession by
sexual union. The relationship was always illicit i.e.
the woman was usually older, the spouse of
another, often a lord or patron, and consummation
was not possible.
Long Toed Shoes
Young men stuffed their long-toed
shoes with moss and grass and under
the circumstances, with no stretch of
the imagination, a 24" long
extension on the end of each foot,
could be put to very practical use.
Small hawk bells were sewn on the
end of the shoe to audibly indicate,
the wearer was interested in sexual
Courtly love and "intimate ceremonies"
Two "intimate ceremonies" of courtship were
commonly practised. Woman worship was where
the would-be suitor gazed on the partly or fully
undressed lady; and naked courting couples were
allowed to lie side by side sometimes separated
by only a pillow.
Kissing and embracing were encouraged but the
lovers proved their depth of love by avoiding
sexual intercourse. These behaviours were highly
sensual and carnal and at a time in history when
married couples were parted or marriage was
delayed, masturbation provided the perfect
The Presence of Syphilis
Most medical authorities accept
treponmeal disease existed in
Europe prior to the 15th century, and
was spread by sexual contact.
The presence of the pox and the
knowledge of its transmission gave
reason to influence sexual practises.
Long toed shoes may have provided
the ideal means of birth control and
later provide protection from
sexually transmitted disease.
The historical corollary if required,
was foot binding in the Orient.
At precisely the same time in
history, the bound (Lotus) foot
became incorporated into sexual
The outcome of neurosyphilis is tabes
dorsalis, characterised by a progressive
locomotor ataxia (due to loss of
proprioception); a sensory ataxia causes
a wide based, "high-stepping" gait.
A further complication is general paresis
caused by brain damage which presents
as impaired mental function with
personality disorders including
Was it a coincidence poulaines caused
fashionable courtiers to adopt a wide
based, high stepping gait (similar to
advanced tabes dorsalis).
The Court Jester
"When the king was a syphilitic
semi-imbecile, a jester even more
grotesque may have served as a
useful stage prop, disarming
criticism by making the king look
more nearly normal by
comparison and thus making the
make-believe of kingship
How did style change?
Crown heads were the fashion doyens of
the time and inter marriage between
countries (or courts) the main reason for
change of costume. One fashion was
superimposed upon another with a trickle
down to ensure courtiers and courtesans
were kept à la mode.
This languid fashion exchange meant
costume took many hundreds years to
The Duck Bill
Towards the end of the 15th century, the
fashion for long toed shoes became
passé, almost overnight.
An absence of written documentation
means the reasons remain unclear, but
from contemporary paintings, the only
evidence available, the style was quickly
replaced by shoes which were so broad
across the ball of the foot as to boast of
individual compartments for each toe.
The first orthopaedic footwear ?
One credible reason for a universal change of
fashion would be the presence of disease. By this
time, a more virulent form of syphilis was in
pandemic across Europe, Russia, China, India and
A further complication of neurosyphilis is Charcot
foot where trophic ulceration decimates the sole of
the foot. Decreased sensation and loss of ability to
feel temperature, pain or trauma, follows, leaving
the feet insensate and unprotected.
What better way to protect them than encasing
them within the Bears Paw. The fashion prevailed
for another two hundred years which coincidently
happen to mirror the worst of the syphilis
By the end of the 15th century, the Italian city states
like Florence had become the centre of world
trade. Fine goods were in abundance and local
craftsmen made merry.
To show off the wealth of their rich husbands,
successful merchant’s wives wore platform shoes
(chopines), lifting them off the ground, to highlight
their rich sumptuous costume.
Quickly the fashion for taller platforms became
vogue until they were 24 inches high. Walking
required two servants for support, (or at least a
silver top walking stick), and rarely did the lady
ever travel outside without a sedan chair.
The end of the Chopine
The fashion came to an abrupt end in
1519 after it was discovered more and
more injuries were reported particularly
among pregnant fashionista.
The term miscarriage originally is
thought to relate to falling over
Cobblers soon discovered the shoe
became more stable and easier to walk
by carving out the forefoot section of
the platform leaving the heel elevated.
Catherine di Medici
Catherine married the future king of France but was widowed
early. For the duration of her lifetime, she had a tremendous
influence of the French way of life. Not all good, but she did
arrive in Paris wearing high heeled mules which instantly took
the attention of the fashion conscious and became vogue for
both women and men.
The fashion remained popular for about fifty years before it
was considered déclassé. This is the first time a particular
piece of costume had been associated with a living person and
many believe this marks the beginning of women’s fashion.
Some women still wore them but by this time the style was
more associated with “depraved and dissolute women”.
Misogynistic medicos have never been able to forgive them.
Catherine di Medici was born in the same year
sumptuary laws prevented chopines from
Style and shoe dimensions
In the Middle Ages, the physical
dimensions of shoes were both defined
by disease and determined by decency.
Length was traditionally measured by
ears of barley corn (1 inch was equal to
3 barleycorns; and 39 barleycorn the
equivalent to adult size 13 shoe).
Throughout the Middle Ages shoe makers
were industrious trades people keen to
follow the fads of their patrons and quick
to form unions gaining themselves
reputations for being socially rebellious.
During the 17th century shoe makers were
often depicted satirically in fairy tales as
goblin like change agents sometimes with
naughty, or ulterior motives
Shoemakers were change agents
The Cavalier boot
By the 17th century boots were part of
military attire and soon became
fashionable across Europe. Boots were
distinctively men's fashion and worn
outside the trousers in salons as well as
on the dance floor.
Charles, I, suffered osteomalacia
(rickets) as a child and learned to walk
with the aid of callipers cleverly
concealed into his boots made by the
The Wellington Boot
By early nineteenth centuries boots surpassed shoes as the fashionable footwear for men. In the Regency
Period, Dandies like, George Beau Brummel, l had his patent leather boots polished with champagne. The
Duke of Wellington instructed his shoemaker, Hoby of St. James's Street, London, to modify his Hessian
boots and make them suitably hard-wearing for riding, yet smart enough for informal evening wear. After
he defeated Napoleon in 1815, he became a national hero and the wellington boot proved so popular they
were worn by patriotic civilians eager to emulate their war hero.
The Cowboy Boot
Wellingtons were standard US cavalry issue to
Union troops, during the American Civil War.
However, unscrupulous contractors supplied
below par footwear made of reinforced carboard
and many horse soldiers suffered deep cuts to
their feet. A Chiropodist General to the US cavalry
was appointed at this time.
After hostilities, troops sent to the Western
frontier to fight in the Indian Wars were supplied
with the surplus of shoddy boots, which fell
Priority was given to skilled leather workers from
Germany and other European Countries to craft
"kips", which were more hard-wearing boots. By
the end of the 19th century a more practical
cowboy boot was beginning to emerge as a
The Hollywood Cowboy Boot
By the time of the Hollywood
cowboy featured, the preferred
boot style was no longer a
Wellington but a Tejas.
In the Napoleonic Wars, Duke of
Wellington championed his boot,
but his nemesis Emperor
Napoleon preferred Tejas.
The three most important influences on
modern footwear design
In modern history, the three most important influences on footwear design have been: Hollywood and the mass
media; World Wars; and The Space Race. In the 20th century, resurgence of nostalgia came first with the Hollywood
epics ensuring millions of the world’s populations could not just see but also wear the fashions of their icons. This
was the beginning of today’s fashion industry. Changing Theatres of War enforced new developments in footwear,
first with mass production, then right and left fittings, with further innovations to allow foot comfort in changing
A new era: Biomechanics and sport sciences
The influence of professional
sports, micro-computers and the
science of biomechanics have all
advanced the design of footwear
in the 21st Century.
Human beings had to put
someone on the moon before
they could have ever make the
shoes that may just one day, allow
us all to run a marathon in under
two hours.The aftermath of the Space Race combined with the Age
of the New polymer. Meant new out-of-this-world
materials could be used in footwear design
To all sources who
made this presentation
not only possible, but