A Brief History of Shoes


Feb 16, 2015 by Amy

Shoes can mean very different things to different people. To some they are a matter of function and no more, while to others they are a luxury item, a means of displaying wealth, status, taste and group membership. Whichever side of this divide you stand on, one thing is clear – shoes are much more than mere items of clothing.


Form and function

Although the oldest shoes ever found have been dated to around 8,000 BC, throughout history, including the modern age, many cultures have seen shoes as simply unnecessary. In the original Olympic games, athletes competed barefoot. Perhaps that is why there has always been a link between shoes and social status: in Ancient Rome, choice of footwear was dictated by social status, and it was actually illegal to wear shoes incompatible with your role in the social structure.

This is understandable, given that originally most shoes were hand made by skilled craftsmen, often using expensive materials, so only well-off people could afford them. This fact was often used by the elite to flaunt their wealth, for example in medieval Britain, the fashion was for ridiculously elaborate footwear with an elongated toe, known as a poulaine. 

Over time, the poulaine developed so such a degree that it was impossible to walk in, showing that the wearer was so rich they did not need to work. In fact, this fashion got so out of hand that a law was passed to restrict the length of toes on shoes! However, the fashion for wearing impractical, even painful, shoes continues to this day, presumably because now, as then, the wearer values the benefits of fashion and status above those of comfort.



Of course, there are many types of shoe, and while some have evolved to show status and taste, others are strictly linked to work. Examples of these include British clogs, made of leather uppers with sturdy nailed wooden soles, intended to protect the feet of Lancashire mill workers and others in industrial occupations.

Other work shoes, however, have crossed the boundaries of work wear and become items of fashion. Riding boots are one example, but perhaps the best known is sports shoes, also known as trainers. While these were originally developed to meet the needs of athletes, it is probably fair to say that now most are worn by people who lead a less than sporty lifestyle.

At many points in history the shoes given to workers have been of much lesser quality than those of the rich, even when lives may have depended upon it: during the first world war, many British soldiers went to the trenches with cardboard-soled boots.



The style of a shoe is not the only thing that can lift it from an ordinary piece of clothing to an item of iconic status. Colour also plays its part, for example in the 1948 film The Red Shoes, where Moira Shearer's ballerina is led to her demise by a pair of evil shoes – that danger being symbolised by their vivid red colour.

Whether your own taste is for a practical shoe or the latest fashion, one thing seems certain – humankind has valued shoes for millennia, and will probably continue to do so.