The history of the shoe is as old as man. Already in prehistoric times, the need to cover and protect feet gives birth to primitive shoes made with soles of vegetable fiber or with untanned skins tied to the foot with a system of laces of the same type. The first graphic evidence of footwear worn by man dates back to around 15,000 years ago, on Spanish rock paintings.
The oldest example of shoe ever found, and in good condition, dates back to 3,500 BC. and was found in a cave of present-day Armenia. According to scholars, this is a women’s shoe, number 37 and a half, formed by a single piece of cowhide, fastened at the front and back with a leather cord.
The history of the shoe is ancient and long and has followed step by step the path of man towards modernity. The history of the shoe is a great story of craftsmanship. Let’s try to summarize the main steps.
The history of the shoe from the Egyptians to the ancient Romans
Among the ancient civilizations, the Egyptians had already assigned to the footwear a symbolic character making it a distinctive feature of the rank held in society. The people, for the most part, walked barefoot while the higher social classes wore shoes. The honorary office of “Bearer of sandals” belonged, for example, to the following of pharaohs and nobles.
These sandals, typical footwear of ancient Egypt and of the Mesopotamian civilizations, generally had a sole in a leather, wood, rush or palm leaves intertwined and secured to the foot through the thong system. You can also admire specimens at the British Museum in London. They consisted of sandals made of leather tanned with vegetable oils and animal fats cleaned of residues, stretched on frames and finally immersed in fatty baths.
Sumerians, Assyrians, and Babylonians then created new tanning techniques by adorning the footwear with decorations also of metallic type. The Sumerians in particular created the fat tanning with oils, the mineral tanning with alum and the vegetable tanning with tannin extracted from the walnuts. The skins were colored white, black and red. The Assyrians made real knee-high boots to ride and to drive war chariots.
The shoes were red for the nobles and yellow for the middle class. The Babylonians instead introduced sandals with embroidery and metal applications. Over the years the peoples of the Middle and Near East refined their tanning techniques. Phoenicians, Persians, and Shiites through peculiar techniques created sandals or boots, depending on the climate and the inhabited region.
But it was with the ancient Greeks that the history of the shoe began to take on basic forms and models then handed down over the following centuries. The Upodémata was the typical sandal with a leather or wood sole bound to the foot by strips of leather. The Embàs was a women’s lace-up ankle boot, the Ambàtes a leather or fabric boot for knights, the Endromides a travel or hunting boot up to half a leg. The Akatioi were shoes with a raised toe, the Kothornoi shoes of soft leather with a thick sole at the calf and laced with red leather straps.
The Romans also adopted tanning techniques similar to those of the Greeks, Etruscans, and roosters which included the use of fat, vegetable products, and alum and also for them the type of shoe soon became a symbol of the social status of those who wore them. The Calcein were soles without heels with leather uppers that wrapped around the foot and were the prerogative of the nobles. The senatorial Calcei was black and worn only by the Roman senators, while the red ones were carried by the highest civil officials. In the patrician ceremonies, the Mullei had a very thick sole to raise their stature.
The creation of the footwear à la Poulaine with a long point, equal to half of the foot, is instead assigned to the ancient Germanic people of the Franks. The Poulaines could initially be worn by the nobles alone, when the length increased, norms were issued which established the various dimensions for nobility, bourgeoisie, and people.
The evolution of the shoe until the modern age
The shoemakers and cobblers’ guilds of the 12th century included special categories of craftsmen. The “Solarii” produced only soles for shoes and socks, or a kind of knitted sock with a leather sole applied. The “Patitari” produced clogs called “Patitos” with upper in sheepskin and a high sole.
Women’s clogs were called “Socchi” and “Zanghe” and had wood and cork soles. The France of Charles VIII, in the fifteenth century, enters the history of the shoe with the shoe A ’bec de cane (A duck’s beak) which in Germany is called Entenschnäbel. Here the first shoes with the method of the welt were created: a strip of leather was sewn on one side to the partition and on the other to the sole.
Also in France, in the sixteenth century, the fashion launched by Caterina de ’Medici of heeled shoes, the Souliers à pont, spread. It was in the seventeenth century that the fashion for boots began to take hold in the aristocracy and the better-off classes. First up to the knee, then up to the knee and splayed.
The noblewomen also wear slippers and shoes embellished with silk or velvet uppers with embossed embroidery and gold or silver threads. Ladies and nobles still use heeled shoes. The Talons rouges (Red heels) are used as a hallmark of social rank. In the following century, for women, pointy shoes became popular while, more generally, footwear began to take on really modern shapes.
In Italy the ladies use shoes with pointed toe uppers in leather, the noble flat shoes are high-necked with a black leather upper with a square toe and a tongue up above the instep. In France, the ladies wear À la mahonnaise shoes with a slightly raised toe and slippers called Chaussons even if the use of carved and decorated heels persists, the so-called Venez y voir as the famous Louis XV heel.
In the nineteenth century the nobles continued to wear slippers with a thin upper and sole called Pantofles à la poulaine, with a raised toe and a red upper, and the Nonchalantes with an embroidered upper. Peasants used to wear clogs for work, at least when the season allowed, shoes were only worn on Sundays.
In the following century, the history of the shoe began to become a piece of fashion history. The shoes of the early twentieth century are inspired in Europe by the French art nouveau, they have an elongated tip and high neckline. Before the Great War, the most widespread shoe was the “Luigi” heel, a rococo style shoe with the characteristic spool shape. Dance shoes also began to spread, more comfortable but still very elegant, while booties with buttoned gaiters were used to walk or play sports.