The history of impractical, gravity-defying, and often down-right health-threatening footwear goes back far further than you might imagine.
Across the globe people have been strapping things to their feet in an effort to protect them from the elements and show off their fashion sense for thousands of years.
While the term shoeaholic might be modern, the desire to link beauty and functionality on ones feet goes deep into the past.
Shoes have been viewed by cultures as status symbols, objects enhancing sexual desire, and even religious icons.
From slippers to platforms, West to East, the history of human footwear is full of surprises.
1 Lotus Shoes 莲履
Originating already in the Song dynasty, for centuries the mania for tiny feet led Chinese women to bind under their daughter’s tender toes from the age of 5.
By wrapping the toes under the sole and breaking arch, the feet were permanently mutilated so that they would fit into intricately embroidered “lotus shoes” averaging 5in long/2in wide.
Binding was common across all levels of society, not only the noble classes and despite numerous attempts to ban the practice throughout the centuries it continued to be popular down to the 20th century.
2 Cracow Shoes
Also known as Poulaines, the exact origins of the fashion are disputed but the names suggest they originated first in Poland.
These leather shoes with pointed toes ranging from 6-24 inches long became popular during the 14th century with men across Europe.
As the length of one’s shoes became associated with one’s social position the tips became ever longer. The longer the shoe — the mightier the man.
At first, where moss or straw had been used to plump out the ends, men were soon forced to use whale-bone inserts to keep up their toes.
Things became so bad that rulers across Europe introduced sumptuary laws fining people for wearing overly-extended footwear. During the 15th C. the fashion even solidified in armor.
3 Oiran Koma Geta
These koma geta or mitsu-ashi (three legs) were worn only by Oiran, the highest ranking of Geisha of the Ukiyo “floating world” pleasure districts of 17th and 18th century Japan.
Oiran wore these shoes with fantastically ornate kimonos, whose silken layers could at times weigh as much as 40lb. and elaborate hairstyles weighing over 15lb.
They then promenaded Soto-hachimonji “outside-8 shape” a way of walking where one sought to draw the character for eight using the foot with each step.
Today, Japanese women still yearly don the koma geta and practice the soto-hachimonji in order to take part in Oiran parades.
4 Persian Cavalry shoes
It may come as a surprise but high heels were originally designed as a practical way to improve the art of war.
Men in the Persian cavalry needed a way to stay on their horses in the midst of battle and thus these heels were born.
While Persian cavalry shoes, with their hardened soles and tiny curved heels were not useful for walking, they worked wonderfully hooking into a stirrup to help keep a rider on his horse.
From at least the 17th century, high class Persian cavalrymen sported this footwear on their way into battle.
Named after a narrow Italian dagger, the stiletto was the inspiration of Italian designer Roger Viviar devised to set off a Christian Dior line in 1953.
The modern stiletto heal can be up to 5in high while narrowing at the base to just 3/8ths of an inch.
The height shows off a women’s calves while forcing her to thrust out her chest to keep balanced making a dramatic profile that has become a symbol of female power and sensuality.
Although occasionally being tossed to the back of the closet over the last fifty years, these narrow heels have made a recent comeback despite dire warnings from podiatrists.
6 Ancient Egyptian Golden Sandals
In the often blisteringly hot land of the Pharaohs, sandals were really the only way to go. Most people in Ancient Egypt went barefoot or wore sandals made of woven rushes.
For the god-kings of the Middle Kingdom however, sandals made of gold with toe covers to match were good enough to protect his tootsies from harm in the afterlife.
Indeed, such ornaments were considered to ward off evil and gold toe and finger covers have been discovered gracing the digits of numerous mummies.
The Pharaoh Tutankhamen in particular it seems was quite a shoe lover as 93 pairs of footgear were discovered in his tomb.
7 Platform Boots
While shoes designed to raise one above the slime of the street might be said to go back to medieval European Chopines, the history of platforms in recent decades has taken an ankle bending new twist.
Moving on from the more practical Gogo boots of the 60’s platform boots became all the rage in the 1970’s as they sailed in with the British invasion of the American music scene that then went global.
Known as Atsuzoku in Japan, these high balancing shoes were a hit fashion item amongst the young trend setting ladies in the 90’s and continue to be seen occasionally on pop stars today.
8 The Paduka
The most ancient shoe of India, versions of the Paduka have been around for thousands of years.
Their simple design of a raised sole shaped like a foot with a post topped by knob at one end to be gripped by the toes helped protect the foot.
Simultaneously, these Pada “foot” ka “small” also minimized contact with the ground limiting the possibility of crushing plants or insects upholding Indian religious beliefs.
Associated with gurus and holy men, paduka became ritualized objects often made of precious materials.
Some even had in-built pumps powered by which sprayed rosewater on the wearers foot with each step keeping it ritually pure.
9 Pointe Shoes
The move to reinforce the toes of simple satin slippers to aid dancers with their pirouettes was first made by 19th century Italian ballerinas.
These first “blocked slippers” used only burlap, leather, and paper to form the toe box, but these first modest improvements led to a radical development in ballet technique.
The new “blocked toe” design made its way to Russia in the 1880’s and with leading prima ballerina Anna Pavlova helped revolutionize ballet into the dance we know today.
While modern slippers have reinforced synthetic cushioning ballerinas still often suffer from painful toes even as they twirl.
The oldest clogs ever found have been dated to 1230 were discovered in the historical heart of Amsterdam.
Although clogs today are most closely associated with Dutch culture, they were in fact common across medieval Europe.
These cheap and sturdy wooden shoes, traditionally carved from a single block of wood, were worn by farmers, miners, and industrial workers.
Clog dancing became a common folk custom in many parts of Europe, in particular Germany, the British Isles, and of course Holland.
In the 18th century “clogging” migrated to the U.S. This group dance, which involves intricate knocking steps is still practiced by dance groups today.