From a young age, we’ve been programmed to wear shoes. But have you ever wondered why we wear shoes and where they originated from?
Today we’re going to be delving into the history of shoes and why they’ve become such a necessity in daily life.
Getting Off on the Right Foot
As the human race, we’ve all grown up with some fundamentals that we never think enough about to question.
We have to breathe in oxygen to live; we must attend education for the first eighteen years of our lives; we should always wear shoes outside.
But what happens when you stand back and begin to question everything that you’ve been taught?
We’re not disputing that wearing shoes is beneficial while we’re outside – it’s a given that we should wear protection when on rough terrain.
But how did the first shoe come about? Who came up with the ingenious idea for shoes?
What did the shoe have to go through to turn from that in its most basic form to some of the unique designs of today?
We’ve brought up a lot of questions already that we’re hoping to answer today, as well as even more.
Taking you through the long and detailed history of shoes, some of your most burning questions will be answered – even before you’ve thought to ask them.
So, if you’re sick of blindly accepting the societal norms, sit tight and learn all about why we wear shoes.
What are shoes?
A shoe is an article of footwear that protects your foot from pain and discomfort. Have you ever been walking barefoot across a beach cluttered with broken seashells wishing that you had a pair of shoes handy?
If so, you’ll know all about why shoes are so important.
While the first shoe was created to save feet from injuries caused by rough and harsh terrain, shoes have slowly turned into a fashion item.
Whether it be a pair of high heels or a futuristic-looking sneaker, many people begin collecting shoes that they like the look of.
There are so many different types of shoes that it is impossible to cover them all in a short amount of time.
Below we’ll be looking at the different types of shoes in more detail, but for now, we should define the umbrella term.
Shoes have been around for centuries, and there is plenty of history of them throughout the years. Just because you’ve never thought about it, doesn’t mean that it’s not there!
It’s difficult to imagine the invention of something that has always been in our lives, so believe us when we say that you’re in for a surprise!
Why were shoes invented?
Shoes were invented so that people could walk around without damaging the soles of their feet every day. Shoes were considered to be an article of protective clothing.
Depending on the material used to make them, shoes could be considered as rather expensive and therefore many people only wore shoes for special occasions such as ceremonial events.
Other than times such as these, people wore no shoes to prevent their only pair from wearing and breaking.
Shoes can be dated as far back as 1600 BC when mountain people in Iran wrapped their feet up in soft leather to protect them from the stony ridges and sharp ground of the mountains.
Archaeological evidence suggests that the need for shoes became more adamant as humans’ skin on their feet became thinner throughout the years of evolution.
From 1550 BC onwards, Egyptians started to make their own shoes made from woven reeds. People went barefoot outside so much that their feet grew callous and their muscles actually got stronger.
China was perhaps the first country to create shoes for aesthetic purposes rather than for practicality.
They used materials such as hemp and quilted the shoes, adding decorative features to make the shoes look nicer than woven reeds as the Egyptians had used.
China’s shoes also boasted functional stitching to ensure that the shoes were protective as well as pretty.
While we don’t think that shoes were created solely for the purpose of distinguishing between societal classes, they certainly would help you to know who was considered better than others in ancient Egypt.
People with the highest status would wear red and yellow pointed shoes, while commoners could have sandals made from papyrus.
Slaves were made to wear no shoes at all. However, sometimes slaves would tie palm leaves to the soles of their feet to offer some protection.
Shoes had the ability to give your social status away from a mere glance, which might give some insight into why shoes became so popular after they were invented.
It’s thought that the Romans created the first shoes that were specifically designed to fit the foot. Up until 50 to 450 AD, shoes had been boat-shaped and secured to the foot so that they wouldn’t fall off.
Roman shoes even had soles and sometimes laces, and there were different designs for men and women.
What were early shoes made from?
When shoes were first invented, they weren’t formed from premium leather, polyblends, or rubber. They didn’t have thick soles or cushioning insoles.
They were commonly made from only one material so that minimal labor had to be used on the creation. During the BC, shoes were woven from reeds, hemp, and soft leather.
Materials that could be easily sourced and didn’t cost much were very common for everyone apart from people with high social statuses.
These people wore more expensive colored shoes to let everyone know that they were wealthy.
The Romans wore shoes made from leather with cork soles for added protection, and the soles were sometimes reinforced with hobnails.
China was more interested in making their shoes look presentable rather than practical, so they were made of more intricate fabrics such as silk and cotton.
The idea was that small feet looked more dainty and pretty, equating to prime marriage material.
To ensure that they would be sought after by husbands in the future, young girls aged 5 to 8 were forced to have their feet broken and tightly wrapped up to help the bones set in different positions.
Once the feet were bound, they would be no longer than 3 to 4 inches and they would have high arches. This was the prime sign of marriage material.
Sure, their feet would not look good on their own, but in a pair of pretty shoes, they would be highly desirable. Unfortunately, the practice of foot-binding left many girls unable to walk.
The practice was banned first in 1645 by Emperor Chun Chi and second in 1662 by Emperor K’ang Hsi, but it was still commonly conducted until the early 20th century.
Foot-bonded girls wore shoes that were embroidered with beautiful patterns, and these shoes were buried with their owners.
A Brief History of Shoes from Start to Finish
We’ve touched upon the history of shoes above, but that was just the beginning.
It’s difficult to imagine something as mundane as shoes could have such a rich and interesting history, but there is so much to unpack when it comes to shoes throughout the years.
Each culture had its own way of making and wearing shoes, and it’s interesting to see how shoes changed over time.
Let’s take a walk down memory lane and take a look at how shoes came to be so common in our everyday lives.
1550 BC – Egyptian Footwear:
The Egyptians made their shoes from woven reeds and they bore resemblance to the shape of boats. These shoes covered the soles of the wearers’ feet as well as all four sides.
However, there was no protection offered to the top of the feet. The shoes were tied onto the feet with a strand of a reed.
68 BC – China’s Ancient Silk Road:
Shoes made from layers of hemp sewn together in a quilted fashion were made in China.
The stitching was used not only as a way to hold the shoes together but also to create fashionable patterns.
Shoes such as these were worn by the Chinese army, seen from the terracotta soldiers from Xi’an.
43-450 AD – The Roman Empire:
Many believe that the Romans were the first to craft shoes specifically tailored to the foot.
They were sometimes even created differently depending on the wearer’s sex, and they were much more protective than other shoes in previous years.
Romans were notorious for traveling great distances by foot, so the soles were made from cork to ease the discomfort and pain of marching 15 to 18 miles a day.
937-1950 AD – Foot-Binding in China:
As we’ve already mentioned, foot-binding came into play as early as the 10th century. However, it became increasingly popular throughout the centuries and was only completely banned in the 1930s.
The shoes were undeniably fascinating and lovely to look at, but unfortunately, the practice behind it could be seen as inhumane and unnecessary.
1350-1450 AD – Pattens: Rather than shoes themselves, pattens were worn over the top of shoes to protect them from touching the dirty floor. We might consider them now as shoe soles that come fixed to our shoes.
The pattern had to be made to be the same shape as the shoes that were being worn at the time, most commonly being a poulaine. You can see an example of pattens in Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434).
Speaking of poulaines, they were shoes very popular throughout the 12th century.
They had pointed toes and were worn by people of all status up until the 15th century when newer models of shoes began to overtake them in popularity.
1450-1550 AD – Rounded Toes:
As Tudor Britain came into full swing, the rounded toe shoe was born.
Up until this point, the squared toe shoes were almost always worn, but rounded toe shoes were more practical for children to wear (and likely more comfortable!).
Up until this point, people had correlated the square toe shoe with high social status. The more squared your shoe was, the better received you were in society.
However, as the round toe shoe grew in popularity, this unspoken rule was thrown out of the window and some adults began wearing rounded toes.
The 1600s – Chopines and Forked Toes:
Chopines were the first shoes to introduce a backless look, one that is seen even to this day with slippers and mules.
Chopines boasted a high platform sole made of cork, which could mean that this is the first sight of a high heel in history. Chopines were worn by wealthy women mostly in Spain and Italy.
Forked toes brought back the appearance of squared toe shoes, but they were not considered an indication of your wealth.
Both men and women wore forked toe shoes, and they were often embroidered and embellished with silk. The more intricate the design of the shoe, the more likely it was only used for indoor wear.
Charles II was restored onto the throne in 1660, making for great waves in the fashion industry. Shoes were not only for practicality anymore but also seen as a fashion statement.
Both men and women began wearing shoes with red-heeled shoes, thought to be made popular by Charles II himself.
The 1700s – The Rise of the Shoe:
The 18th century is really where shoes blew up in regards to popularity. Both men and women wore mules indoors as slippers.
Pattens were fixed onto shoes for the first time and sold as clogs, made from leather.
They were stronger and more durable than any shoe that had been seen in the past, which made them good for workers.
It’s worth noting that patterns were still made to go over clogs, even though clogs technically were normal shoes with permanent patterns built onto them.
This gives us an insight into how filthy the streets were in the 1700s.
Mules were seen as a sign of sexuality in the 18th century and they were often worn by women in salons and dance rooms.
They became associated with sexuality when Louis XV’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, often was seen wearing them.
Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s painting The Swing (1767/68) depicts a woman kicking off a pair of mules towards a man hiding in the bushes, further associating the mule with sex.
We’ve already mentioned how China saw shoes as a fashion opportunity rather than just for practicality, so it makes sense that other countries would try and copy their designs sooner or later.
Kampskatcha slippers were created with orientalism in mind, but they failed to capture the true essence of China’s shoes.
Heels were more common in the 1700s, but they were mostly short heels that didn’t add much height to the wearer. Heels were considered important to avoid getting your shoes dirty, much like pattens.
The 1800s – Fashion and Comfort Prevails:
Miniature shoes were first introduced in the 1800s as a way to easily transport shoes.
They often measured shorter in length than they did in height, so you can imagine how uncomfortable they were to wear.
As time went on the premise of these shoes was developed upon, leaving us with what we now know as high heels.
The 19th century saw the first Wellington boot commissioned by the Duke of Wellington, a high boot that kept mud and dirt from ruining pant legs while horse riding or walking through rural areas.
The Wellington boot is still popular today. C & J Clark Ltd was founded in 1825 and still remains one of the world’s leading shoe manufacturers to date.
In 1818 came the separation between left and right shoes, first created in Philadelphia. This was the turning point for shoes and shows us when people began wanting shoes for comfort rather than just protection.
Buckled shoes, elasticated boots, and rosettes also rose in popularity in the 19th century. Throughout the century came a number of newly designed shoes and suddenly people were not only limited to one style of shoe.
As shoes became more comfortable, manufacturers allowed the shoes to become more fashionable as well.
The 1900s – Less Extreme Shoes:
From the time when shoes were first invented, we’ve seen incredibly low heels and extremely high heels.
Both of which would not do in the 1900s; however, and the ‘normal’ high heel was introduced.
The heel was not too high that you couldn’t walk in it, but it was not too short to not accentuate a woman’s body.
Sneakers made an appearance in the 19th century but only became widely popular in the 20th, with plimsoles, keds, and Converse All-Stars being mass-produced.
Salvatore Ferragamo, one of the most innovative shoe designers in the world, became popular in the 1930s. He focused his efforts on creating shoes made from animal skin such as fish, kangaroo, and crocodile.
With the arrival of World War II, shoes such as Doc Martens were founded. Loafers were reinvented by the House of Gucci and Stilettos rose in popularity throughout the latter half of the century.
Flip flops, Birkenstocks, Ugg boots, and platforms were also popularized in the 1970s and 80s, as well as the craze in designer wear.
As more people become interested in fitness, more and more brands started emerging with different shoes for different sports.
Reebok, Nike, and Adidas were founded and quickly became popular. Nowadays, people wear fitness shoes for everyday life rather than just workouts, and they have proven to be very successful as collector pieces.
Materials that were used
It’s almost impossible to note down all of the materials that were used to create shoes, starting from the ancient Egyptians all the way to the 21st century.
When shoes were first being created and fitted onto feet with string, the shoes were made from anything that people could easily get their hands on. Leaves and reeds were commonly used.
People of higher classes were able to afford more expensive shoes made of leather. Interior shoes could be made from cotton or silk with intricate patterns stitched into them.
As time went on, shoes became more structured with a separate sole. The top of the shoe would be made from leather or hemp and the sole would be constructed out of cork.
Cork is not the most durable material; however, so the Middle Ages saw soles being made from leather, jute, or fiber from plant stems.
As shoes were still not made to be very durable or easy to clean, pattens were invented to protect the shoes from dirt. These were made from leather and didn’t matter if they got dirty along the way.
Moving into the modern era, shoes started to be seen as more of a fashionable piece. Other animal skin was experimented with to make fashion statements, with snake and crocodile being the most popular.
This can still be seen today, although animal welfare organizations are constantly protesting to ensure that the majority of animal skin shoes are fake.
Sneakers have become incredibly popular in the last century, and these can be made of a number of different materials.
Rubber soles are almost always seen now, and the top of the shoes can be made from leather, fabric, and foam, or synthetic fibers.
With scientific advances nowadays, there are many different alternatives to leather shoes that were not available before the 19th century.
Shoes in different cultures
It’s amazing to see all of the different variations of shoes in different cultures.
Depending on where the culture is from, the shoes vary to accommodate the issues that arise in those areas.
People who live in rural areas might only wear sandals with minimal protection due to the lack of danger for their feet to come across.
Indian padukas, open-toed sandals with thin stilts, offer limited protection to the cold as they are worn in an area that is almost always warm.
The added height from the stilts protected the soles of the feet from being burned on the scorching hot ground. Padukas were also a sign of holiness and worn by Hindu priests.
On the other hand, cultures that reside in freezing conditions craft boots from seal skins and caribou. This is mainly seen from Inuit women in areas such as Canada and Alaska.
Many shoes are crafted for specific activities or occasions, such as cowboy boots for horseback riding cowboys in the 1860s to 1890s.
As we’ve seen in the previous sections about the history of shoes, a lot of designs came with heels attached to them.
Contrary to popular belief, heels were not designed only to show off a woman’s body. They were actually invented to protect the foot from dirt and debris found on the roads.
Wearing tall heels was also a sign of your social status. The higher the heels, no matter whether they were a man or a woman, indicated how important the person was and therefore made them more attractive.
This was seen almost all around the world, but the different designs showcased different cultures.
Japanese geisha would wear high platform geta, which were sandals with long wooden stilts on the soles.
They certainly don’t look easy to walk in, yet Japanese geisha were trained to dance, serve, and entertain while wearing them.
To walk in geta properly, you’d need to take slow and short steps to avoid tripping over.
Nalin, special bathing clogs from Turkey, used a similar stilt design to geta and were worn around hammams (more commonly known as baths).
The height of the nalin stilts varied from wearer to wearer, but the higher stilts were not used to give them better protection from the water.
Instead, the higher the stilts showed everyone around them how high their societal status was.
Shoes for different genders
In the beginning, when shoes were first being created, there was no need for different shoes for the different sexes.
Everyone needed protection from the dirty and dangerous floor and shoes provided.
It was not until the Romans began creating their sandals that women and men received their own design of the shoe.
However, it is likely that the only change was the sizing. The same design of shoes was worn by both men and women for centuries, with heels being a sign of status rather than a sign of womanhood.
It was in the 15th century that the difference began to become apparent, with women’s shoes being more pointed in the toes and with higher heels.
Between the 15th and 20th centuries, there was a divide between women’s and men’s shoes. Men wore bigger, bulkier shoes, and women were expected to wear dainty shoes with heels.
However, we think it interesting that there is now becoming a unisex shoe design in sneakers. Many women who prefer sneakers will wear men’s sneakers and not give it a second thought.
Emerging trends in footwear
Trends are always being recycled from previous decades once we’ve had enough of all of the new trends.
One thing that is apparent with emerging trends in footwear is that many shoe designs that we mentioned within their extensive history are coming back into style.
Loafers, colorful boots, and platforms always seem to come in and out of style every couple of decades.
Mary Janes, a timeless office shoe, is making a comeback for the first time in a decade and everyone seems to be excited about it.
It’s unknown what the next best thing is going to be in the world of shoes, but we think that all of the possibilities have been explored and made.
We don’t think that men will be wearing heels again anytime soon, but the main types of shoes have all been done. What could possibly be next to that we haven’t already seen before?
The industrialization of shoes
The industrial revolution was building momentum through the 19th century, where we saw the mass production of shoes.
Up until the 1830s, shoes were made sparingly and were only replaced when the old pair were no longer usable.
They were made by shoemakers behind a sewing machine until the industrial revolution saw technological advancements able to produce insane amounts of shoes at a record pace.
Now able to create shoes in a fraction of the time that it used to take, the divide between men’s and women’s shoes began to become even more apparent.
Men needed boots suitable for working and women wore pretty shoes that only saw the floor of the house.
Men stopped wearing heels to showcase their social status, so a heeled shoe’s only use was to make husbands find their wives more attractive.
Modern shoe brands and counterfeit culture
Sneakers are one of the most worn types of shoes on the market and therefore have become the most popular market of shoes.
Brands like Nike, Balenciaga, and Jordans have been able to capitalize on the popularity of sneakers and hike the price up incredibly high.
Much like how people used to wear heels to show off their wealth and status, people now base this on the brands you’re wearing.
Wearing a pair of Gucci sneakers is like wearing a pair of incredibly high heels.
People get incredibly wrapped up in wanting to display their wealth in the form of designer brands, but not everyone has the luxury of being able to spend thousands of dollars on one pair of shoes.
This is where counterfeit culture comes in. The footwear industry is one of the largest growing markets on the planet, so it’s easy to see why the brands put their prices so high.
You’re paying for the brand, after all. When a shoe is released onto the market and does well for itself, the brand can sometimes release a second wave of shoes for up to ten times the original price.
A lot of people can’t pay the asking price, so people set out to create fake shoes and sell them at a discounted price. They look similar to the originals, but the quality can suffer greatly.
Counterfeit products pose a risk to the original brands’ reputation, the economy, and buyers.
While buying a pair of counterfeit shoes half the asking price of the real ones seems very enticing, it’s possible that the shoes can contain harmful chemicals.
Moreover, the quality of the shoe could fail you and cause you to buy replacements within a couple of months of wear.
For example, one pair of shoes could last you for two years and cost $400. The counterfeit alternative might cost $50 but only lasts two months.
By the end of the two years, you’d have purchased 24 pairs of counterfeit shoes, costing three times the original price.
What types of shoes are there?
There are many types of shoes out there, some of which have stood the test of time and can date back to as early as BC. Below we’ll take a look at the different types out there.
Adidas Kampung – Not to be confused with the popular fitness brand, Adidas Kampung is a name for generic rubber shoes. Typically black, they’re ideal to be used as inexpensive working shoes.
They’re waterproof, quick-drying, and easily accessible.
Boat shoe – Boat shoes are made from canvas or leather and have rubber soles ideal for gripping on wet decks. The shoe is brushed with oil to keep them water-resistant.
They are comfortable enough to not be worn without socks and they’re very popular among sailors.
Brothel creeper – Creepers have thick, platform soles that are of a crepe design.
The upper was traditionally made from suede when the shoes were first popularized after World War II, but now they are made from leather and synthetic materials as well.
Chelsea boot – Dating back to the Victorian era, Chelsea boots reach up to the ankle. They have panels of elastic on the sides and a loop at the ankle so that the wearer can easily pull them on.
The boots can be made from leather or synthetic materials.
Chukka boot – Chukka boots are similar to Chelsea boots as they are too ankle boots, with suede or leather uppers and leather or rubber soles. They have three lines of laces thanks to the minimalistic six eyelets.
Clog – Clogs are made from wood and they have been around for many years. Many cultures use clogs for different activities, such as farming, working in the mines, and dancing.
Some cultures believe that clogs are for the lower classes and others consider them very fashionable.
Dance Shoe – This is an umbrella term for many different shoes. Dance shoes can refer to ballet, tap, ballroom dancing shoes, which are all very different in shape and material.
Hip hop dancing is associated with sneakers, so dance shoes do not apply there.
Dress shoe – Another umbrella term, men’s dress shoes can refer to many different shoes. Butchers and brogue shoes can all be classed as smart dress shoes.
They are most commonly made from leather with multiple-piece construction. They have eyelets that ensure the laces lay straight and flat over the vamp of the shoe. They can have perforations for decorative purposes.
Driving moccasins – Moccasins are traditionally made from deerskin or other leather to make them very flexible and comfortable. They are commonly worn by indigenous people in North America.
Driving moccasins come with rubber sections on the bottom to give more grip while driving.
People also use moccasins as slippers or house shoes.
Elevator shoes – Wearing elevator shoes is common among shorter people who want to add a little height to themselves without drawing attention. The insole is thicker to give the appearance of added height.
Espadrille – These shoes are normally made of canvas or cotton on the upper with esparto rope for the sole. The shoe is very easy to slip on and has no straps to fasten it to the foot.
Espadrilles became popular near the beginning of the century when Toms was founded.
Boots – Boots are made for a whole number of reasons. Hiking, riding, and other useful activities can benefit from the use of boots.
Boots are also considered fashionable and can reach anywhere from your ankle right up to the thigh.
Geta – As we mentioned earlier, geta is a traditional Japanese shoe that contains stilts on the sole.
High Heels – As the name suggests, the heel on these shoes is significantly higher than the front of the foot. They are now used to make women look taller and accentuate their toned legs.
High heels come in all colors and heights and have plenty of cultural significance in many countries.
Pumps – Pumps have a low-cut front and a small heel. They are often embellished with a simple buckle or bow that is only for decorative purposes.
Pumps have been around since the 17th century and have remained popular as a simple smart shoe for many women.
Sneakers – Sneakers were first created for exercise purposes. They have thick rubber soles to reduce the impact of running on your joints.
However, they quickly became popular and are now a lot of people’s everyday footwear. They come in a range of designs and colors, and there are plenty of sought after sneaker brands on the market.
Shoes Today: What Do They Look Like?
Nowadays, sneakers are undoubtedly the most commonly worn shoes. They’re primarily created for exercise purposes but they can be worn at any time.
They are made from synthetic materials and have laces of Velcro strips to fit them to your foot.
People who collect sneakers are called ‘sneakerheads’ and brands endorse this behavior by creating limited-edition sneakers to collect.
Work shoes are often made from leather and adopt a square or pointed toe. This could be down to the 15th-century belief that squared toes indicated wealth and social status.
Men’s work shoes cover a lot of the foot and often look like loafers. Women’s work shoes can be heeled or not, with thin straps stretching over the top of the foot.
High heels come in all different shapes and sizes, ranging from an incredibly thin heel to a chunky heel.
They can be of various heights, but it is thought that high heels are decreasing in popularity in favor of kitten heels and wedges.
They can come in all colors and patterns, made from leather or synthetic materials. Designer heels have distinctive properties such as the Christian Louboutin red soles.
Walking Into The Future: What Will Shoes Look Like?
Almost everything has become ‘smart’ now, including toasters, watches, and lightbulbs, so why aren’t smart shoes a thing yet?
Well, they could very well be a thing in the future, tracking steps and letting you know how efficient your workout was. That doesn’t seem too difficult to achieve, so expect to see them soon.
Taking it one step further, though, there seems to be a possibility that we’ll be able to customize our shoes in the future!
LED light bulbs can be so small that they’re almost undetectable nowadays, meaning that we might be able to change the color of our shoes in the future.
If you look on the internet for examples of what the shoes will look like in the future, almost all of the results will be concerning sneakers.
As both men and women all wear sneakers nowadays, this isn’t that surprising. However, will they continue to prevail and overtake the popularity of the traditional work shoe?
Will we all be wearing high-tech sneakers in the future rather than smart shoes? Or does it simply indicate that the timeless high heel and loafer won’t be altered in the future?
There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to wait and see what shoe manufacturers come up with.
However, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that every kind of shoe will have Bluetooth and a charging socket in the sole…
Conclusion: Walk This Way
Are you surprised about how rich the history of shoes is? We all know the basic premise of shoes and why we wear them, but shoes have actually gone through a lot to get to where they are now.
Once a basic piece of attire to help people walk without damaging their feet, shoes have now become a fashionable statement piece and a collector’s item.
Almost every factor surrounding shoes has had a makeover since they were first invented in BC.
The materials have evolved, the designs have become more complicated, and there are different types of shoes that we can now choose from.
The industrial revolution might have been the best thing for shoe manufacturing.
Shoes differ from culture to culture, and it’s incredibly interesting to see how other cultures see their shoes.
We’ve taken you down the winding path of the surprising history of shoes, all the way from BC to today, but there is one thing that we’re still unsure about – what shoes will look like in the future.
We will just have to wait and see what shoe manufacturers think of next!