Brief history


Spanish cave drawings from more than 15,000 years ago show humans with animal skins or furs wrapped around their feet. The body of a well-preserved “ice-man” nearly 5,000 years old wears leather foot coverings stuffed with straw. Shoes, in some form or another, have been around for a very long time. The evolution of foot coverings, from the sandal to present-day athletic shoes that are marvels of engineering, continues even today as we find new materials with which to cover our feet.

Has the shoe really changed that much though? We are, in fact, still wearing sandals – the oldest crafted foot covering known to us. Moccasins are still readily available in the form of the loafer. In fact, many of the shoes we wear today can be traced back to another era. The Cuban heel may have been named for the dance craze of the 1920s, but the shape can be seen long before that time. Platform soles, which are one of the most recognisable features of footwear in the 1970s and 1990s were handed down to us from 16th century chopines. Then, high soles were a necessity to keep the feet off of the dirty streets. Today, they are worn strictly for fashion’s sake. The poulaine, with its ridiculously long toes is not that different from the winkle-pickers worn in the 1960s.

If one can deduce that basic shoe shapes have evolved only so much, it is necessary to discover why this has happened. It is surely not due to a lack of imagination – the colours and materials of shoes today demonstrate that. Looking at shoes from different parts of the world, one can see undeniable similarities. While the Venetians were wearing the chopine, the Japanese balanced on high-soled wooden shoes called geta. Though the shape is slightly different, the idea remains the same. The Venetians had no contact with the Japanese, so it is not a case of imitation. Even the mystical Chinese practise of footbinding has been copied (though to a lesser extent) in our culture. Some European women and men of the past bound their feet with tape and squashed them into too-tight shoes. In fact, a survey from the early 1990s reported that 88 percent of American women wear shoes that are too small!

As one examines footwear history, both in the West and in other parts of the world, the similarities are apparent. Though the shoemakers of the past never would have thought to pair a sandal with a platform sole, our shoe fashions of today are, for the most part, modernised adaptations of past styles.

The Construction of a Shoe

Over one hundred operations go into the construction of a shoe. The first and most important of these is the creation of the last. The last is a hand-carved wood or moulded plastic replica of the human foot. The last determines the contour of the arch and how evenly the wearer’s weight will be distributed throughout the foot. A different last is required for each shoe style and size to be produced.

Before a shoe can be made, as many as thirty-five measurements are taken from a footprint to show the distribution of the body weight. The maker judges the symmetry of the toes, calibrates the girth of the instep and ball of the foot, and calculates the height of the big toe and the contour of the instep. He or she must also estimate how the foot will move inside the shoe. All of these ratios must be addressed without compromising the architectural beauty of the shoe design.

For a heeled shoe, the maker visualises the heel height, than determines the size of the throat. Next the appropriate height of the shoe’s quarter is established. If it is too high it will rub the tendons, and if it is too low, the shoe will fail to grip the foot properly.

Crucial to the fit of a shoe is the measurement of the shank curve, including the ball and instep. This is where the body’s weight falls when the foot is in motion.

Using the last as a guide, the pattern maker cuts out the shoe upper and lining. The edges are then bevelled to ensure a good fit and the pieces are then sewn together. Next, a toe box is constructed, the counter is added, and the leather is soaked so it will easily conform to the lines of the last.

The upper is positioned on the last, tautly stretching it before nailing it tightly onto the last. The upper dries on the last for two weeks before the sole and the heel can be attached.
The final steps are to trim the welt, pare the heel, burnish the sole and add the insole lining. Last the shoe is polished and buffed, and it is ready for sale.

The Anatomy of a shoe
Breast: the front of the heel under the arch
Cap: the toecap
Counter: overlaid piece at the back of the upper
Feather: the part of the last and the shoe where the upper’s edge meets the sole
Insole: a piece of leather or other material between the sole and the foot
Puff: a light reinforcing inside the upper which gives the toe its shape and support
Quarter: the part of the back of the upper, which covers the heel
Seat: the concave part of the heel that fits into the shoe and into which the heel of the foot sits
Shank: a piece of metal inserted between the sole and the insole lying against the arch of the foot
Sole: the piece of leather or other material that comes in contact with the ground
Stiffener: the inside stiffening of the upper, covering the heel and giving the back of the shoe support
Throat: the front of the vamp
Top Piece: the part of the heel that comes in contact with the ground.
Topline: the top edge of the upper
Upper: the piece of the shoe that covers the foot
Vamp: the part of the upper that covers the front of the foot as far as the back as the joint of the big toe
Waist: the part of the last and the shoe that corresponds to the arch and instep of the foot.

High Renaissance

In the early 15th century, Florence became the centre for a revival of interest in the art of antiquity. The period that followed, aptly named the Renaissance or “rebirth”, brought new concepts to art, architecture and fashion. By 1485, the Renaissance movement had spread into France and England. This period brought about tremendous advancements in science, exploration and medicine, which would have a great impact on the Western world.

Early Mannerist Renaissance 1520 – 1560

The period from 1520 to 1560 was one of political realism. The rivalry of great nation-states such as England, France and Spain and the cynicism that governed their political moves led to violent acts such as the sack of Rome in 1527. The reformation was reshaping Europe’s religious values, causing fear and distrust within the culture. Thus, the art was artificial rather than derived from nature.

An economic revolution was reshaping the daily lives of the people of Europe. A monetary system replaced the old concept of barter, and the increasing supply of gold and silver from the New World raised prices and caused inflation.

Elizabethan-Jacobean 1560 – 1620

This period brought much change throughout Europe. The defeat of the Spanish Armada by the English fleet began the shift of overseas authority from Spain to England. Elizabeth I of England was one of the most outstanding royal personalities of all time, therefore the period has become better known by the names of the two English leaders.

In Italy, the Counter-Reformation resolved the doubt and confusion that had prevailed in the late sixteenth century. Germany was caught up in a religious debate, culminating in the Thirty Years’ War, which started at the end of the period.

The art during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century continued to be anti-natural, still displaying the intricacies and tensions of mannerism. It was during this time that America also began to figure directly into Western history.

Early Baroque 1620 – 1660

The Thirty Years’ War, a struggle that lasted from 1618 to 1648, involved all of Europe, and finally absolved the tensions between the Protestants and Catholics. A new cultural style, Baroque, had begun to develop in Italy around 1600 as a result of the attempt to renew the Catholic faith by using the arts as propaganda. This renewal of faith and upsurge of the arts came to be known as the Counter-Reformation. Germany was ruined by the Thirty Years’ War and was removed from the artistic scene until the eighteenth century.

The new style emerging in the Baroque period was passionate, colourful, extravagant and theatrical. Opera was invented during this period – a rich art form that was a severe contrast to the previous period of inwardness.

Politically, England was entangled in a civil war, ending with the beheading of the King and a period of Puritanism that was not released until Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, marking the end of this period.

In France, the weakness of Louis XIII led his chief minister to consolidate all power in the central government, preparing the way for the authority of Louis XIV.

The colonies of the New World began to grow and prosper, becoming a source of money, a place for excess populations, and a market for goods.

Restoration 1660-1715

When Charles II returned to England in 1660, and Louis XIV in 1661 began his personal rule in France, the centre of culture in Europe began to shift from Rome to Paris. Baroque art began to move into a phase now known as classic Baroque.

This classic Baroque style was more restrained than the earlier flamboyant Baroque, and followed the principles of the High Renaissance. The independent, exuberant noblemen of the past now became tame courtiers living with the king at Versailles. The arts were used to propagandise for the tightly controlled life of power favoured by the Sun King.

Charles II, while taking much influence from France, his place of exile, still retained an essentially English court. There was no attempt at the precision and order that governed the court at Versailles. As a result the English culture was more eclectic and comfortable than that of the French.

After Charles’ death, the reigns of William and Mary and Queen Anne were marked by a turn toward bourgeois morality. Thus, the arts and clothing between 1690 and 1710 were more restrained and formal than they had been under Charles II.

Politics in Europe at this time were concerned mainly with the ambitious imperialism of the Sun King. Louis XIV started the War of Spanish Succession by placing one of his own family on the Spanish throne after the death of Charles II of Spain. Smaller wars throughout Russia, Denmark, and the attempted expansion of the Turks into the Holy Roman Empire mark this period as one of unrest.

Rococo 1715-1775

The reign of Louis XV in France was a period of relaxation after the heavy autocratic rule of Louis XIV. By 1730, the light, elegant, feminine tastes of the Rococo era were fully established.

The English royal family switched from the Stuarts to the Hanovers with the coronation of George I. The Stuart pretenders led many great yet unsuccessful revolts against the German born king.

In the New World, the rivalry between Spain, England and France reached its peak. The greatest rivalry, between England and France, climaxed during the French and Indian wars where the French lost all her North American holdings.


The rediscovery of Herculaneum and Pompeii in the mid-eighteenth century caused a passion for art based on classical antiquity. This was not a revival of Greek or Roman principals, but a dream of the antique – a refined use of classical ornament placing a great emphasis on horizontal and vertical lines. At the same time, an interest appeared in romantic art, which eventually included all art that appealed to the emotions.

This was a period of great transition politically and culturally. The American War of Independence shifted the balance of power so that England, France, and Spain all had less influence in North America. The French Revolution paved the way for Napoleon’s attempt to a rebirth of Imperial Rome with Napoleon as Emperor. The Napoleonic Wars also gave England new power in Europe, as the leader of allied armies against the French Emperor, as well as the undisputed ruler of the sea.

This was also the period in which the leaders of the American Revolution slowly and painfully formed national unity.


The fall of the totalitarian leadership of Napoleon brought a sigh of relief throughout Europe. When the Congress of Vienna met to redraw the old map of Europe, they in many ways attempted to re-establish the old monarchies that existed before the Revolution. This was not possible after the events of the past twenty-five years, and so the next three decades were to be based on liberal, radical and romantic attempts to overthrow these monarchical systems.

After the fall of Napoleon, Europe was continuously disturbed by revolutionary uprisings. Though the revolutions in many countries such as Greece, the Spanish colonies and France were militaristic in nature, in England the revolution was industrial. The economic changes caused by this revolution led to great suffering and much violence, as well as giving birth to the new, industrialised world and the rising of a larger middle class.

Later Victorian to World War I 1870-1914

With the industrial revolution in full swing, the shift from an agrarian to an urban industrial economy was nearly complete by the beginning of this period. The lower levels of society were faced with poverty, crowding and the insecurity of urban living. This led the way to the first attempts to establish labour unions as a means for regulating pay and hours in factories.

Though this period is not traditionally thought of as one of unrest, the last half of the time frame shows the Western World in preparation for war. The Boer War and several other conflicts throughout Europe begin to convince people that war is imminent, and consequently, the world is holding its collective breath in wait for The Great War.

World War I and the 20’s (1914-1929)

The First World War had a tremendous impact on the entire western world. The rationing of all goods that could be used for military purposes, as well as the drafting of huge numbers of men into the war effort, drastically altered the way of life. Women were called upon to replace men in the factories, giving them their own money for the first time. After the war, women could not be persuaded to go back to their old status, and soon gained the vote in most Western countries.

The twenties sees an explosion of optimism. World War I was over, the factories were full, and the stock market was climbing. People had money to spend on leisure items. Automobiles made it possible for people to take trips across the country.
The crash of the stock market in 1929 leads us into the next period, and ends the carefree age of the roaring twenties.

The Thirties

The Great Depression beginning with the Wall Street Crash of October 1929 was to effect millions of people throughout the Western world for a decade. In the days and months that followed that fateful day, the bubble of gaiety that had defined the twenties was ended, and a decade of hardship and depression followed.

Politically the decade of the 1930’s was filled with revolutions, invasions, dictatorships, and the final weakening of the League of Nations. The slide toward was ended with Hitler’s invasion of Poland, and the beginning of World War II.

The Forties

The Nineteen forties were dominated by the war. With the invasion of Poland, the world began to change. It shortly became obvious that the war would engulf more of the world and last longer than World War I. Soon with the military power sweeping through Europe, the United States felt pressure to enter the war. With the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, the United States was thrust headlong into WWII, not just in Europe, but with the Japanese as well. During this period little thought was given to arts and culture and the normal politics of the time. All efforts were focused on winning the war. Films, novels and fashions either supported the war or took influence from military ideas.

When the war finally ended the Cold War began. The United States and its allies found themselves in a psychological and military duel abroad. This was a period of scientific and technological activity, with both sides pouring time, money, and personnel into the great competition for military, scientific, and psychological superiority.

The Fifties

Politically and socially the 1950s saw the United States embarked on a wave of anti-communism in all forms. The renewal of the values of daily life disrupted by the war had begun. The arms race was on, first with the invention of the hydrogen bomb, and later, with the race for space.

Socially, the 1950’s were a period of a return to family, home and business. In a new world of tension, instant communication, and massive increases in destructive technology, the Western world attempted to return to a world of capitalist competition and expansion.

The Sixties

From the complacent culture of the United States in the 1950’s with its images of the man in the grey flannel suit, suburban living, Cold War politics, and Eisenhower conservatism, arose a new feeling under the idealistic leadership of John F. Kennedy. Suddenly, there was a new feeling of commitment to human concerns. This was reflected in the founding of the Peace Corps, the opening of the civil rights movement, and the commitment of the nation to the defence of freedom in the world.

After the shock of the assassination of President Kennedy and the escalation of the war in Vietnam, there was a more violent and militant support of the new ways of thinking. By the summer of 1967 the hippies fled to gathering places like San Francisco and the East Village. The climax of these gatherings took place in Woodstock, New York, in 1969. For the first time in U.S. history, the work ethic, competitive capitalism, and the values of materialism were ignored. An entire generation had thought that they had successfully turned against the establishment.

The Seventies

When the Vietnam War wound down in the early 1970’s, financial recession and energy shortages had emerged. Confrontation and revolt receded, and young people began to turn to private goals and a concern for self. Interest in the occult demonstrated the escapism that was a reaction to the explosive sixties.

The Eighties

The recession, which ended in 1982, left the United States with relatively high interest rates. The U.S. was spending far more than it was collecting in taxes, and as a result, borrowing heavily from other nations. In the mid-eighties, big business ruled the ideals. Materialism hit its peak, and yuppies (the young, upwardly mobile set) were living it up by night and getting fit by day.

The Nineties

The Nineties brought the world into the electronic age. In the span of the decade, cell phones, computers, email, and the internet went from technological oddities to necessities.
The North American economy boomed, and the population reveled in the affluence by consuming as never before.


Shoes are the subject of much superstition and myth. Almost every culture since the beginning of time has had some superstition surrounding their footwear. This continues today with the bronzing of baby shoes and the tying of shoes to the back of a newlywed couple’s car. Even Hollywood’s walk of fame continues this custom.

In China, a child’s shoe may be adorned with a fierce animal such as a tiger. The animal is meant to protect him from evil spirits.

A Native American custom was to put a hole in the sole of the shoes of an infant to let bad spirits escape.

An age-old funeral ritual is burying a pair of shoes with the deceased. Though no one knows the origin of the custom, it is perhaps in hope that the departed will walk comfortably in the afterlife.

It was a Chinese custom to toss the bride’s red shoe upon the roof of the house on her wedding night as a sign of love and harmony.

A custom of the Zuni people of the United States Southwest was to have a woman’s wedding boot made by her fiance.

When a king dies, the Ashanti people of West Africa paint their sandals black.

Japanese samurai warriors wore shoes made of bear fur, in the belief that the animal’s strength could be transferred to the wearer.

In Europe, shoes were used as charms for houses. When a house was being built, a shoe was placed in the wall to ward off evil spirits. Many old examples of footwear are discovered today when old buildings are demolished.

According to a Judaic rite, and unmarried brother-in-law of a childless widow is obliged to marry her. The widow can release him from this obligation by publicly removing a ritual halizah shoe from his foot. He is then free to marry someone else.

In the Islamic faith, worshippers are required to remove their shoes before entering a mosque.