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The History of Shoes: Goody Twos And Otherwise
by Marjorie Dorfman

I did not have three thousand pairs of shoes, I had one thousand and sixty.
~ Imelda Marcos, 1987

Where did shoes come from and when did humanoids start walking with them? How, when, where and why did heels become so high? These and other elevating, "soleful" issues will be addressed below.

No one will ever know exactly when mankind first thought about protecting their feet from the natural hazards of weather and the rough ground they walked upon. History does reveal, however, that the importance of doing so was recognized very early in the course of human civilization. Records from ancient Egypt and China all contain references to footwear. Shoes are also mentioned repeatedly in the Bible, and for the Hebrews shoes signified legality, notably in binding a bargain.

Sandals were the earliest and most common footwear. Records indicate that making them was a highly recognized art in ancient Egypt. Among the relics of that civilization are some sandals constructed from plaited papyrus leaves, beautifully and artistically designed. Sandals worn by royalty were distinguished from those of commoners by a long peaked toe. In Mesopotamia (c.1600-1200 BC), the mountain people who lived along the Iranian border wore a type of soft shoe. Made of wraparound leather, it was similar to a moccasin, but there was no difference between the right and left shoe. (It also has no kinship to the soft shoe of vaudeville, which found its way to New York City at the turn of the 20th century on a whole other boat altogether!)

Besides the obvious need for protection, shoes tell a specific story about their wearer, revealing economic and social status as well as personality. (This goes for Goody Two and her brother, the old soft-shoe as well. Remember him? He’s the one who said, "Well, if the shoe fits…") Character is revealed by a reaction to fashion and the condition of the shoe tells how a person stands and walks. Therefore, stand back when Elvis warns about stepping on his blue suede wonders and Dorothy cavorts along the yellow brick road to Oz in her slippers of ruby red.

Shoes figure prominently in all the folklore known to modern man. Consider Mercury’s winged sandals (Talaria Crepida), Puss in Boots and Cinderella, whose glass slippers soared her from a life of drudgery into a world of handsome princes who were never toads. Shoes have always been an important aspect of costume and fashion. The custom of throwing shoes after a newly wedded couple was supposed to bring luck. (With the 50 percent divorce rate today, it seems doubtful that even the finest shoes could help much.)

In many countries, the sandal has not changed since man’s early development, while in others it has evolved as an art form. It is still the primary footwear in the warmer regions of the world. For some, like the Japanese, sandals reflect the social status of the wearer. Each profession and class has its own distinctive type and pattern, ranging from the Imperial Household to merchants, samurai of old and the like. For the Greeks, the sandal was beauty, for the Romans a practical military vehicle for travel on foot. In the golden days of the Roman Empire, many a sandal was wrought with gold and fine jewels.

The moccasin is the all-purpose shoe in those countries where feet grow cold (not only before weddings and other special occasions, but every day, rain or shine). The puckered seam is its one odd feature, and it appears in moccasin footwear everywhere. The word moccasin comes from the Cree or Algonquin word, maskisina, meaning shoes or footwear. Native Americans fashioned them from the skins of elk, deer and buffalo, and some of the designs incorporated on their surfaces were beautifully wrought and colorfully designed with beads and other materials.

Down through the ages, little attention was devoted to the aspects of proper fit or comfort. (In this case, if the shoe didn’t fit, wear it anyway.) This was especially emphasized during the age of the medieval guilds in Europe where workmanship and extravagance reigned supreme. Two of the oddest creations from this colorful epoch were the peaked shoe or Crackow and the Duckbill shoe in Elizabethan England. The former was made with a toe so long that walking was extremely difficult if not impossible. Despite this, believe it or not, it wasn’t discontinued until a law was passed prohibiting its wearing. Later idiocy followed with the introduction of the Duckbill shoe. Its maximum width could not exceed five and one half inches, leaving one to ponder about how to enact laws demanding maximum widths of human feet! At this time in sunny Italy, the Chopine, a 13-inch pedestal shoe, became all the rage among powdered ladies of class, and is considered the great grandmother of today’s high-heeled shoe. (It was practical too, because when you got tired of walking along the Venetian canal, you could stop and eat some fruit on the shoe’s provided pedestal that doubled as a small coffee table!)

Throughout the centuries, up to 1850 in fact, the hand tools used by craftsmen barely changed. The 14th century shoemaker used the ancient Egyptian curved awl, chisel-like knife and scraper. However, the 1300s had added pincers, lap stone, hammer and rubbing sticks to the mix.

It would be the shoemakers and inventors of the good old US of A (as Archie Bunker used to say) who would be the first to create successful machinery for producing shoes. The Rolling Machine of 1845 replaced the lap stone and hammer used for pounding sole leather by compacting the fibers. The following year brought the sewing machine by Elias Howe (of cotton gin fame). The year 1858 brought even more innovations and inventions. Lyman R. Blake, a shoemaker, invented a machine that sewed the soles of the shoes to the upper parts. A man named Gordon McKay later purchased Blake’s patent and improved on it, creating a new shoe known intelligently as a "McKay."

At the time, the shoes made on this new machine were thought to be a boon to the burgeoning war effort. They counterbalanced the shortage of shoes brought about by the induction of cobblers all over America into both the Confederate and Union armies. But that was not to be, for "McKays" were very difficult to sell. Undaunted, McKay reinvented himself and his shoes as he gingerly approached the shoemakers of America who needed to increase their production. He offered to put his machines in their factories in exchange for a small percentage of what the machine would save on the production cost of each pair. He issued Royalty Stamps, and this soon became the accepted practice of introducing machines into the industry.

McKay very quickly discovered that if he wanted to get paid, his machines had to be operating properly. He made the parts interchangeable and trained a group of experts on their proper operation. The Goodyear Welt Sewing Machine of 1875 became very successful under the management of Charles Goodyear Jr., son of the inventor of vulcanizing rubber fame. He developed many auxiliary machines to aid in shoe production as well.

The dawn of the twentieth century brought little change to the world of shoe fashion. The prim, trim black boots of Queen Victoria’s time were still seen everywhere, and skirts still demurely brushed the tops of women’s feet. Between 1900-1910 (aka The Edwardian Era, Belle Époque, Gilded Age, Beautiful Age), Paris became the matrix of the fashion world. Charles Dana Gibson’s Gibson Girl was the ideal of beauty, and there was also the odd preference for narrow feet, which was believed to be a sign of gentility and breeding. (Back to that old Duckbill shoe again!) Wanting to fit in, most people regularly wore shoes that were a full size too small. (Ouch!) In an intense need to belong, some women even opted to have their little toes removed to achieve narrow feet! (Double, no triple ouch!)

Day footwear was typically boots while shoes for nights out on the town were more diverse, the most popular being a court shoe with a small, Louis heel. The toes, which were usually the only part of the shoe to peek out under voluminous skirts, were often adorned with embroidery, metallic, jet or glass beading. Satin and kid were the most common components of evening boots, which had rows of beaded straps embellishing the shin.

Many men of this era often limited themselves to just one pair of shoes that lasted for several years. With the Industrial Revolution, individual craftsmanship gave way to mass production techniques. Soon only the ultra rich could afford custom-made shoes. At the same time, factory shoes meant lower prices and shoes became an affordable accessory for both rich and poor. Things would remain sedate and dainty until 1914. The onslaught of World War I wrought many cosmic changes, not the least of which was in the fashion realm.

The 1920s were a tumultuous period in American history. Flappers, prohibition, suffrage and early female liberation from Victorian restrictions ran amuck and collided with everything else. Nothing was as before and like the old Cole Porter song, Anything Goes, anything went. The shoe became as risqué an accessory as the women of the era.

The 1930s brought a time of widespread wishing for ways out of the Great Depression. Jiminy Cricket’s ideology reigned supreme, though stars to wish upon did not shine as often or as brightly as they would in later years. This longing and deprivation was harshly juxtaposed to the world of sex, wealth and glamour that flashed so boldly across the silver screen and into the mainstream consciousness. Escape came in the celluloid antics of the Marx Brothers, the light, dancing feet of Fred Astaire, and the sultry sensuality of Greta Garbo when she didn’t "vant to be alone" and daringly bra-less Jean Harlow. It was an age of experiment for shoe designers who introduced the platform shoe in the late 1930s. Created by Salvatore Ferragamo and André Perugia, these were made from wood, cork and other materials.

Many shoes of the period were cut higher, making them look "chubbier". Evening footwear retained a "sandal" character, revealing open toes and sheer, silk hose. Men wore mostly spectator loafers. The late 1930s saw an end to Art Deco and its replacement by a surrealist movement in which shocking colors and everything exotic became the rage. All would change in just a few years when the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the advent of World War II made America think of everything but shoes.

By 1940, the average woman owned five pairs of shoes. They became less important in the face of war and fascism. Even Hollywood did its part, creating films that boosted morale and the war effort. Designers were forced to be very clever and inventive, as materials, particularly leather and rubber were slated for military use only. Every imaginable material was tried, but the use of reptile skins and mesh proved to be the most successful. Cork and wood were also used regularly, particularly in the making of the popular "Wedgies." Women everywhere proved to be equally creative when it came to shoe trimmings, using household items such as cellophane and pipe cleaners to decorate their shoes for special occasions.

During the war everything was recycled. US rationing rules limited the height of shoe heels to one inch and allowed for only six color choices. Stockings were not available and many magazines of the day offered tips on how to paint legs with back seams using make-up. This was not so much fun and the practice soon gave way to not-so-sexy but much easier ankle socks. The next change in shoe design would occur with the advent of Christian Dior, who in 1947 introduced a new look in dress and footwear design, which reflected a return to classic femininity.

The post-war optimism of the 1950s brought a surge of consumerism and a return of embellishments to both clothing and footwear. Now shoes were made in many shapes and from many materials. The pump was the basic shoe, but toes were often cut into enticing Vs and the heels were molded into a myriad of forms. No color was considered a "no-no" and now the American woman had a pair of shoes to match every outfit she owned. Along with the unforgettable "poodle skirts" and ponytails, saddle shoes (bucks), penny loafers and colored sneakers were all the rage with teenagers. (Who could ever forget Pat Boone’s famous white bucks? Maybe Pat Boone, but surely no one who lived through this era.) Sandals, ballet slippers and other casual footwear were very fashionable, especially after Audrey Hepburn wore them in Sabrina and other memorable films of the period.

Fashion turned inside out and fell on its head during the topsy-turvy 1960s. The gentility and class of Jackie Kennedy’s Chanel suits soon gave way to a cultural and social revolution, marked by many innovations including outrageous self-expression. Experimental fashion became the cat’s meow; two primary examples being geometric prints and the famous mini-skirt of Mary Quant. Shoes became a part of it all, created in every size, shape texture, color and style imaginable. Platforms, go-go boots, (especially famous after Nancy Sinatra’s hit, "These Boots Were Made For Walking"), crazy sandals and new materials such as vinyl and plastic, were heavily in demand. This age of experimentation was a decade where, at least as far as shoes were concerned, the clunkier and the uglier the better. With the advent of the 1970s, sailed a new fashion wave, which would make the 60s look tame and innocuous in retrospect.

The new epoch brought the concept of dressing to the level of shock. Punk movements took even that idea for a wild and impetuous ride. Celebrities could afford and paraded around town with the outrageous platform shoes that were the creative brainchildren of the most popular designers of the day. These shoes often reached outrageous heights of seven and even eight inches; little mountains, covered with rhinestones, sequins and other adornments. Cultural icons, like Wonder Woman, created a lust for interesting boots (made all the more so by the long, lovely legs of actress, Linda Carter). These were often worn with short skirts or very hot pants and were often embellished with jewels or all kinds of psychedelic, neon designs. They were never plain or boring, whatever else they were.

In 1972, the Nike brand of sneakers made its debut and running became a popular American pastime. The athletic craze would never die. In the very late 1970s, a man named John Travolta and a film named Saturday Night Fever catapulted the disco movement into the consciousness of mainstream America. With it came a demand for strappy platform heels for women and platform loafers for men. This movement didn’t last, but its effects were so extensive that it became a symbol of the decade.

The 1980s brought the aerobics craze and the emerging "Yuppie" mystique. Power dressing with designer brands became the focus of many department stores. The high heel gave way to athletic shoes, and quotes such as "it’s harder to climb the ladder of success in high heels" were taken seriously. Also flats and low-heeled shoes in muted colors and classic styles were popular. Moccasins and espadrilles were re-invented in louder and bolder colors. Molded plastic jellies in many colors were a huge fad, and even men’s shoes were not safe from the monstrous concoctions of designs (and designers) running amuck.

The 1990s represented an amalgam of all the styles that went before it, with at best nothing new and nothing more than fleeting. Diversity was the keyword, both in fashion and shoes. Every imaginable style for every conceivable occasion flooded the market. The daily activities of people were reflected in their footwear, which included boots, sneakers, pumps, sneaker-pumps, mules, sandals and flats. Styles were heavy, light, clunky, dainty, ethereal and mean. Athletic shoes gained a foothold as strong as ripped jeans and plaid shirts. Ugly platform shoes made an uncomfortable stand, but ended up like General George Armstrong Custer at the last one he ever had.

The twenty-first century may tell a different shoe story, but it’s a bit too early to tell. Certainly technology will wield its power and perhaps the men and women of the future will wear spectacular footwear never before imagined. The world of design is a vast frontier limited only by the imaginations of designers. Will the pedestal shoe return to haunt picnic lovers everywhere? And the long-toed walking shoe, the Crackov, will that again be available in the neighborhood shoe store? If it’s true that with fashion everything is thrown into a barrel and turned around again after many years, anything is possible. As you shop with credit card in hand, do not consider removing your little toe for the sake of fashion. Maybe suggest that Goody Two Shoes do it if you can find her, for she needs to do the wrong thing once in a while. Above all else, remember that only you can prevent forest fires and that:

If the shoe fits…wear it!


Did you know . . .

Copyright 2007