The History of Shoes

Footwear from Ancient Times to the 20th Century

Choice of shoes
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In most early civilizations, sandals were the most common footwear, however, a few early cultures had more substantial shoes. But shoes in ancient—and even not so ancient—civilizations had some major design differences than their modern-day counterparts. In fact, as late as the 1850s, most shoes were constructed on absolutely straight lasts (foot-shaped forms on which shoes were constructed and repaired), which meant that the right and the left shoes were pretty much the same. On the upside, that would make them interchangeable. On the downside, they were likely a lot less comfortable.

Shoes in the BC

In Mesopotamia, circa 1600 to 1200 BC, mountain people living on the border of Iran wore a type of soft shoes made of wraparound leather that was similar to a moccasin. Egyptians began making shoes from woven reeds as early as 1550 BC. Worn as overshoes, they were boat-shaped and had straps constructed of long, thin reeds covered by wider strips of the same material. Shoes in this style were still being made as late as the 19th century. Meanwhile, in China, shoes made from layers of hemp, circa the final century BC, were made in a process similar to quilting and featured decorative as well as functional stitching.

Circa 43-450 AD

Roman sandals are believed to be the first footwear specifically designed to fit the foot. Constructed with cork soles and leather straps or lacing, sandals were the same for men and women. Some military sandals known as caligae used hobnails to reinforce the soles. The imprints and patterns they left behind could be read as messages.

Circa 937 AD

Foot binding was a practice introduced in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) that became increasingly popular in China during the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD). Starting at age 5 to 8, the bones in girls' feet were broken and then tightly wrapped to prevent growth. The ideal for women's feet was modeled after the lotus blossom and was decreed to be no more than three to four inches in length. Girls with tiny, highly arched feet were prized as prime marriage material—but the crippling practice left many of them barely able to walk.

These tiny feet were adorned with dainty shoes constructed of silk or cotton and richly embroidered. Chinese women of the upper classes were often buried with many pairs of such shoes. While several bans were imposed on the practice (the first by Emperor Chun Chi of the Manchu dynasty in 1645 and the second by Emperor K’ang Hsi in 1662), foot-binding remained a common practice in China into the early 20th century.

12th Century

Pointy-tipped Poulianes (“shoes in the Polish fashion”) became popular in the middle ages and continued to come and go until the early 15th century.

Circa 1350 to 1450

Pattens were overshoes worn to protect them from the elements and filthy street conditions. They were similar in function to more modern galoshes, except that pattens were made in the same shape as the shoes they were fitted over.

1450 to 1550

During the Renaissance, shoe fashions evolved from vertical lines favored by Gothic styles to become more horizontal. Nowhere was this more evident than in the toe shape. The richer and more powerful the wearer, the more extreme and broad the squared toe became. However, while squared toed shoes were prevalent, during this time, round-toed shoes began to emerge. Round-toed shoes were considered a more practical choice for children, however, even some adult shoes of the Tudor period featured the round profile.

17th Century

During the mid-17th century, shoe fashions for men were mostly square-toed, however, it was at this time that the fork toe design debuted. Chopines, backless shoes or slippers featuring high platform soles, became popular throughout Renaissance Europe thanks to a revival in ancient Greek culture. The most notable examples from the period come from Spain (where the platforms were sometimes constructed from cork) and Italy. Men, as well as women, wore slip-on indoor slides known as mules, which were available in a variety of materials and colors and featured a slightly flared heel.

In 1660, with the restoration of Charles II to the throne of France, fashions from the French courts grew in popularity across the Channel. Red heels, a style allegedly created for Charles himself, came into vogue and remained there well into the next century.

18th Century

In the 18th century, shoes for upper-class women, such as salon mules, initially took shape as boudoir fashion but evolved into day and even dancewear. The erotically charged footwear was favored by Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV of France, who was in huge part responsible for the trend. Unfortunately, elegant shoes of the day were constructed of materials such as silk that rendered them inappropriate for outdoor use and as a result, pattens (also known as clogs) made a big comeback, especially in big cities, such as London, that had yet to deal with the unsanitary conditions of its streets.

Fast Facts: Shoe Laces

  • Prior to shoestrings, shoes were commonly fastened with buckles.
  • Modern shoestrings, which employed strings laced through shoe holes and then tied, were invented in England in 1790 (first recorded date, March 27).
  • An aglet (from the Latin word for "needle") is a small plastic or fiber tube used to bind the end of a shoelace, or similar cord, to prevent fraying and to allow the lace to be passed through an eyelet or another opening.

In the 1780s, a fascination with all things “Oriental” led to the introduction of shoes with upturned toes known as Kampskatcha slippers. (While billed as an homage to Chinese fashion, they more closely resembled Juttis, the upturned slippers worn by affluent female members of the court of the Mughal Empire.) From the 1780s through the 1790s, the height of heels gradually decreased. With the approach of the French Revolution (1787-99), excess was seen with increasing disdain, and less became more.

19th Century Styles

In 1817, the Duke of Wellington commissioned the boots that would become synonymous with his name. Streamlined and free of ornamentation, “Wellies” became all the rage. The rubberized version, still popular today, was introduced in the 1850s by the North British Rubber Company. In the following decade, the family shoemaking firm of C & J Clark Ltd was founded and remains one of England's leading shoe manufacturers.

Prior to 1830, there was no difference between right and left shoes. French shoemakers came up with the idea of placing little labels on the insoles of shoes: “Gauche” for the left, and “Droit” for the right. While the shoes were still both straight in shape, since the French style was considered the height of fashion, other countries were quick to emulate the trend.

In 1837 by J. Sparkes Hall patented the elastic side boot, which allowed them to be put on and taken off much more easily than those that required buttons or laces. Hall actually presented a pair of them to Queen Victoria, and the style remained popular through the end of the 1850s.

By the 1860s, flat, squared-toed shoes featuring side lacing were de rigeur. This left the front of the shoes free for decoration. Rosettes were a popular embellishment of the day for women’s shoes. In the mid- to late-1800s unassembled shoes made with flat sheets of woven straw were produced in Italy and sold across Europe and in America to be put together as shoemakers saw fit.

In the mid-1870s, the Manchu people of China (who did not practice foot binding) favored platform shoes that were the precursors to 20th-century fashion styles. Hoof-shaped pedestals afforded increased balance. Women’s shoes were taller and more intricately decorated than those for men.

19th Century Innovations in Shoe Manufacturing

  • 1830s: Plimsolls, canvas-topped shoes with rubber soles, first manufactured by the Liverpool Rubber Company, make their debut as beachwear.
  • June 15, 1844: Inventor and manufacturing engineer Charles Goodyear receives a patent for vulcanized rubber, a chemical process that uses heat to meld rubber to fabric or other components for a sturdier, more permanent bond.
  • 1858: Lyman Reed Blake, an American inventor receives a patent for the specialized sewing machine he developed that stitches the soles of shoes to the uppers.
  • January 24, 1871: Charles Goodyear Jr's patents the Goodyear Welt, a machine for sewing boots and shoes.
  • 1883: Jan Ernst Matzeliger patents an automatic method for lasting shoes that paves the way for the mass production of affordable shoes.
  • January 24, 1899: Irish-American Humphrey O'Sullivan patents the first rubber heel for shoes. Later, Elijah McCoy (best known for developing a lubricating system for railroad steam engines that did not require trains to stop) invents an improved rubber heel.

    Keds, Converse, and the Evolution of Sneakers

    In 1892, nine small rubber manufacturing companies consolidated to form the U.S. Rubber Company. Among them was the Goodyear Metallic Rubber Shoe Company, organized in the 1840s in Naugatuck, Connecticut, the first licensee of Charles Goodyear's vulcanization process. While Plimsolls had been on the scene for nearly six decades, vulcanization was a game-changer for rubber-soled canvas shoes.

    From 1892 to 1913, the rubber footwear divisions of U.S. Rubber were manufacturing their products under 30 different brand names but the company decided to consolidate their brands under a single name. The initial favorite was Peds, from the Latin for foot, but another company already owned that trademark. By 1916, the choice had come down to two final alternatives: ​Veds or Keds. The "k" sound won out and Keds were born. The same year, Keds introduced their Champion Sneaker for Women.

    Keds were first mass-marketed as canvas-top "sneakers" in 1917. Henry Nelson McKinney, a copywriter who worked for the N. W. Ayer & Son Advertising Agency, coined the word "sneaker" to connote the quiet, stealthy nature of rubber-soled shoes. Other shoes, with the exception of moccasins, were noisy while sneakers were practically silent. (The Keds brand was acquired by the Stride Rite Corporation in 1979, which was in turn purchased by Wolverine World Wide in 2012).

    1917 was a banner year for basketball shoes. Converse All Stars, the first shoe specifically designed for the game, were introduced. Soon after, Chuck Taylor, an iconic player of the day, became the brand ambassador. The design has remained pretty much the same over the years, and remain firmly ensconced in the cultural landscape today. 

    Early 20th Century Styles

    As at the close of the 19th century, low-heeled shoes began to fall increasingly out of favor and as the new century dawned, higher heels made a huge resurgence. However, not everyone was willing to suffer for fashion. In 1906, Chicago-based podiatrist William Mathias Scholl launched his eponymous brand of corrective footwear, Dr. Scholl’s. By the 1910s, morality and fashion were increasingly at odds. Nice girls were expected to play by a stringent set of rules, including those instituted with regard to the heel height of women’s shoes. Anything over three inches was considered “indecent.”

    Spectator shoes, the two-toned Oxfords commonly worn by British patrons of sporting events gained huge popularity among the well to do in England at the close of WWI. In America, however, spectators became part of the counterculture instead. By the ’40s, spectators often accompanied Zoot suits, the over-the-top outfits sported by African American and Hispanic men in defiance of the fashion status quo.

    One of the most innovative shoe designers of the 20th century, Salvatore Ferragamo, rose to fame in the 1930s. In addition to experimenting with unusual materials including kangaroo, crocodile, and fish skin, Ferragamo drew on historic inspiration for his shoes. His cork wedge sandals—often imitated and reimagined—are considered one of the most important shoe designs of the 20th century.

    Meanwhile, in Norway, a designer named Nils Gregoriusson Tveranger was looking to create a shoe that was truly comfortable and fashionable. His unisex innovation, a slip-on shoe called the Aurland moccasin was inspired by Native American moccasins and slip-ons favored by Norwegian fishermen. The shoes took off, both in Europe and in America. Not long after, the Spaulding family based in New Hampshire launched a similar shoe called "The Loafer," which would eventually become the generic term for this slip-on style.

    In 1934, G. H. Bass debuted his Weejuns (a play on the word “Norwegian” as a nod to the homeland of the original designer). Weejuns had a distinctive strip of leather across the saddle featuring a cutout design. Kids who wore them started putting pennies or dimes into the slot, and the shoes became known as—you guessed it—"Penny Loafers."

    The boat (or deck) shoe was invented by American boater Paul Sperry in 1935. After watching how his dog was able to maintain stability on ice, Sperry was inspired to cut grooves into the soles of his shoes and a brand was born.

    Post World War II & the Latter Half of the 20th Century

    WWII was the crucible for a number of shoe trends. Doc Martens, combining comfortable air-cushioned soles with durable uppers were invented by Dr. Klaus Maertens in 1947. In 1949, Brothel creepers, the brainchild of British shoemaker George Cox, transformed the sole of an army boot into a thick exaggerated wedge made their debut.

    Loafers had long been considered a shoe of the hoi polloi in America but when the style was reinvented in 1953 by the House of Gucci, it became the shoe of choice for formal occasions for affluent fashion enthusiasts of both genders and remained so through the 1980s.

    Stiletto heels (whose name was a nod to a Sicilian fighting blade) became increasingly popular in the 1950s as the curvy female hourglass figure came back into vogue. Designer Roger Vivier of the House Dior is credited as having the most influence on shoes of this style from the period.

    While they’ve existed for more than 6,000 years in some form or other, the Y-shaped rubber sandals known as flip-flops became pretty much ubiquitous in the 1960s.

    The Birkenstock family have been making shoes since 1774, however, it wasn’t until 1964 when Karl Birkenstock transformed the arch support inserts for his shoes into soles for sandals that the company became a household name.

    During the 1970s disco craze, platform shoes became hot, hot, hot. Taking a leaf from Salvatore Ferragamo’s designs from four decades earlier, men and women hit the dance floor in outrageously high shoes. One of the most popular brands of the era was Candie’s, a clothing brand that launched in 1978.

    Ugg boots debut in 1978. Uggs were originally made of sheepskin and worn by Australian surfers to warm up their feet after being in the water. In 1978, after Brian Smith imported Uggs to California under the label UGG Australia, the brand took off and has remained a fashion staple ever since but knockoffs in a variety of synthetic and cheaper materials have flooded the market.

    With the 1980s came a fitness craze that changed the shape of footwear. Designers such as Reebok increasingly took branding and specialization to heart in hopes of raising both profile and profits. The most successful athletic brand to cash in on this trend is Nike’s Air Jordan, which encompasses basketball shoes and athletic and casual style clothing.

    The brand was created for five-time NBA MVP Michael Jordan. Designed for Nike by Peter Moore, Tinker Hatfield, and Bruce Kilgore, the original Air Jordan sneakers were produced in 1984 and were solely for Jordan’s use, but were released to the public later that year. The brand continues to thrive in the 2000s. Vintage Air Jordans, especially those with some special personal connection to Michael Jordan, have sold for exorbitant prices (the highest recorded as of 2018 was in excess of $100,000).

    Sources