Introduction

Part of figure 1 from: 2010 First Direct Evidence of Chalcolithic Footwear from the Near Eastern Highlands. PLoS ONE 5(6): e10984. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0010984

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 the history of footwear, 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.