All About Shoes


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

Custom and Superstition

Shoes are the subject of much superstition and myth. Almost every culture since the beginning of time has had some superstition surrounding their footwear. This continues today with the bronzing of baby shoes and the tying of shoes to the back of a newlywed couple’s car. Even Hollywood’s walk of fame continues this custom.

In China, a child’s shoe may be adorned with a fierce animal such as a tiger. The animal is meant to protect him from evil spirits.


A young girl often travelled to meet her husband only shortly before the wedding. The mother-in-law would be sent a pair of shoes, made by the prospective wife, ahead of the marriage, and this would be how the bride was selected. When the new bride arrived, her shoes and feet were inspected before she even stepped out of the sedan chair.


The Chinese recognise five primary colours. Red, yellow, blue (which includes green), black and white.

Red: A symbol of virtue and good luck used for festive occasions such as weddings, anniversaries and New Year celebrations.

Yellow: Up to the fall of the Qing Dynasty, yellow was allowed to be worn only by the emperor, empress and the heir apparent. All others could wear only an almond colour.


Though shoe styles varied from region to region, no one style can be attributed to any specific region of China. A bride may have grown up in one province and made her shoes of a local design, then moved to her husband’s province where the design was quite different. In the cities, most of the shoes were made from silk. In villages and poorer sections of the country, cotton was used because it was less expensive and more durable. The shoes varied greatly in style according to area, climate, lifestyle and according to fashion.

The Binding Process

The girls who went through the excruciating process of footbinding were usually between the ages of five and seven. Though the process could be started as early as two years old, and attempted in girls as old as twelve or thirteen, the ideal age was six. At this point, the foot is comprised mainly of pre-bone cartilage. The cartilage is predominantly water, and could be easily moulded.


The appearance of the bound foot was of utmost importance. Chinese men and women pursued the ideal known as san zun jin lian – the three inch golden lily, or golden lotus.

The ideal length for a bound foot was three inches or less. Only a foot of this size was dubbed “the golden lily”. A foot of four inches was insulted with the term “silver lily” and longer feet would be given the ultimate insult – “the iron lily”.


It is easy for us to assume in this modern age that men must be the source of the pain endured by the young girls who had their feet bound. There are, however, many reasons for the custom that must be examined to discover how such a horrid custom could remain for a millennium.


Lotus Shoes

The Chinese custom of breaking and binding a little girl’s feet began over one thousand years ago. Since that time, millions of Chinese women from all classes have experienced the excruciating pain involved in achieving the extraordinarily tiny lotus foot. Foot binding began in the royal palaces in the mid-10th century. There are several stories surrounding how this strange custom began. Myths surrounding the gods and goddesses of China include a story about a fox who, in an attempt to disguise himself as an empress, concealed his feet by binding them.