Best Foot Forward-Part One

Narrow stillettos-now she can be taller than he is. Wonder what shoes will be like for future generations? What will future generations think of ours? Decided to take a look at the past and see what was worn way back when.
The weather could be tempestuous, the terrain rugged, so over 500,000 years ago, primitive men protected their sensitive feet with wraps of rough leaves, woven grass, animal skins or tree bark. A few milleniums later, our ancestors padded their tootsies with moss or soft wool as they hunted and gathered. Shoes are cited in the Bible – see Exodus, Ezekiel, Deuteronomy, Ruth – and many ancient records relating to early civilizations such as the Chinese and the Assyrian mention footwear. Shoes figure in mythology – Mercury wore winged sandals – and fairy tales – Puss in Boots, Cinderella, The Red Shoes. Folklore – Leprechauns have been busy cobbling shoes in Ireland for years and tradition – a penny in a bride’s shoe is said to bring good fortune to the newlyweds.
The “Ice Man,” discovered in the French Alps, died with his primitive shoes on, in 3,500 BC. In Egypt, murals painted on temple walls, 500 years later, depict shoemakers and sandals that fasten with thongs and a slate tablet portrays a Pharaoh followed by a slave bearing his sandals. Sandals, made of wood, dressed the feet of Egyptians for their journey to eternal life in 2,500 BC, then, between 1,300 and 1,500 BC, the deceased were turned out in funerary shoes made of palm leaves. Sandals with long peaked toes signified a king, a prince or a priest while Egyptian women dressed in sandals decorated with jewels. The oldest discovery of footwear in North America took place in Missouri where traces of shoes, worn by pre-historic Native Americans, were unearthed in a cave in 1950. Tests, conducted in 1997, found them to be over 5,000 years old.
Gender and rank influenced footwear when the Greek and Roman Empires were at their cultural summit; when paying a visit, prominent citizens of Rome removed shoes worn out-doors and donned sandals carried by slaves. Soldiers’ toes peeked out of heavy, high-laced, hobnailed boots and both Romans and Egyptians carved their enemies faces on the soles of their shoes. Bare feet marked a Greek slave in 100 AD, actors in tragedies, written by Aeschylus in 200 AD, towered above mere mortals in shoes with thick cork soles while the noble feet of the Roman Emperor Aurelius and his successors would, by his decree, be the only feet shod in sandals of red.
Christianity, under the rule of the Byzantine in the 5th century AD, thought exposure of the body immoral and designed shoes to cover the feet. Shoes cost the equivalent of a peasant’s yearly wage, were treasured as gifts and often bequeathed to family which led to the saying, “Following in your father’s footsteps.”
During the Middle Ages (the 5th to 15th centuries,) peasants went barefoot, wore skin wrappings, leather soles with loose fabric hose fastened with thongs or sabots (shoes made of wood) while nobility and churchmen wore a moccasin type of footwear, in velvet, gold cloth or leather, that reached the ankle. Craftsmen as well as merchants formed guilds to protect members, regulate wages, the quality of production and working conditions for apprentices. The system flourished in Europe until the 14th century when trade and work conditions led to change. The power of the guilds began to decline as relations between masters and journeymen became strained and towns restricted the rights of the guilds to regulate industries. By the sixteenth century, capitalism introduced large-scale manufacture of merchandise and competition; soon markets and shops were established where no guilds existed.
Unrestrained and unwieldy could be applied to shoe fashion during the 14th century – knights took baby-steps in long-toed shoes, the English called Crakows, after Poland’s capital, and the French called Poulaines, after Poland. The higher the rank, the longer the toes – but the simple act of walking became difficult – some toes as long as 30 inches were supported by whalebone, stuffed with wool and moss and tied to the waist with chains. Then King Edward IV of England, in 1463, decreed the length of the toe could be no longer than 6 inches for a commoner, 12 inches for a landowner, 18 inches for a knight and 24 inches for a baron – a prince chose whatever length he wished. Long-toed shoes were followed by duckbill shoes, cushioned, pillowed, wide (sometimes as broad as 12 inches,) flat and equally troublesome. Now a man’s gait resembled a duck’s waddle.
Platform shoes (rising as high as 30 inches) came into fashion in southern Europe in the mid 1500s. Louis XIV, the Sun King, short in stature but absolute in power, added miniature battle scenes to his 5 inch platforms; platforms were, by his edict and under penalty of death, limited to the priviledged classes. Wooden shoes were worn to protect against mud all through the 17th century, although the wealthy pranced about in shoes that were gallooned (lace made of silk and woven with cotton, gold or silver).
From the 14th Century BC until 1850, shoes were fashioned with the curved awl, a chisel-like knife and a scraper. Pincers, lapstone, hammers and rubbing sticks for finishing edges and heels were gradually added. There was rarely any difference between the right and left shoe as they were made on straight lasts with two widths – “slim” and “stout.” The lasting pincer, one of the craftsman’s few tools, limited his output to a few pairs a day; today, the Goodyear Welt shoe laster, lasts approximately 1,200 pairs in 8 hours.
A law passed by the Pilgrims in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in 1628, prohibited “an excess in boots,” but Massachusetts soon became the shoemaking center of the Colonies beginning with Thomas Beard, a craftsman, who arrived on the Mayflower, under contract to the Colony, and settled in Salem in 1629. Though some Colonists tanned leather and crafted their own shoes, itinerant cobblers traveled from town to town offering their services to the town’s inhabitants. Many of these cobblers later set up shop in the villages and sturdy leather shoes with a moderate heel were worn by men and women.
Stop by tomorrow for part two of Best Foot Forward
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3 Responses to “Best Foot Forward-Part One”

  1. Liz Fichera Says:

    Platform shoes in the 1500’s? Interesting. It’s nice to hear that not just women had to endure horribly uncomfortable footware.

  2. Elise Warner Says:

    I find the history of shoes fascinating. Thank heavens for sneakers.

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