Shoes through the ages

‘Beautiful and sculptural shoes are one of the most evocative aspects of dress’.

Shoes are powerful indicators of the wearer’s gender, class, status, identity and taste.

Feet are made for walking but shoes may not be and, throughout the centuries and across cultures, impractical footwear has denoted a privileged and leisurely lifestyle. The choice of design, materials and decoration makes such shoes unsuitable for manual labour or even walking.

Finds from medieval archaeological sites in London reveal leather shoes with fashionable, extremely narrow and pointed toes.

Over the last 200,000 years, humans have continuously strived to improve their lives – making everything easier and more practical. However, there is an enduring tension between the practical and the symbolic. For shoes, the symbolic has become more important than the practical.

Footwear can also be a symbol of domination, from the red-heeled men’s shoes of the French court of Louis X1V and the black platform boots of mandarin officials of the Chinese emperor.

Consider our oldest shoe story, Cinderella, where the glass slipper elevates the wearer to a superior social position.

(source:  V&A. Pain and Pleasure)

High Heels

Height is the most noticeable signifier of status and identity- examples of which can be seen all over the world.

Shoes play an important part in what is considered ‘sexy’ and have long been objects of fetishism. The erotic aspects of footwear and the particular way of walking is epitomised by the stiletto wiggle of Marilyn Monroe.

High heels in the 18th century were conceived as producing a tottering gait while the heels of the 1920s produced an upright stride.

Shoes have been the most consistent example of fashion that ignores actual human anatomy by distorting the feet.

Today, even shoes that claim to be ergonomic usually have rounded or square toes.

(source:  V&A. Pain and Pleasure)


Soft, flat pumps were popular in the Western world for the first half of the 19th century. Even though they appeared to be comfortable they could be as physically restrictive as high heels due to the silk-satin uppers and the thin soles which were not made for walking. This in effect limited women to the home and gives the message that the wearer is wealthy enough to lead a largely domestic life and has no need for hard- wearing shoes.

(source:  V&A. Pain and Pleasure)


Pattens were supposed to protect the feet and shoes of the wearer from dirty streets. These overshoes were common in the 18th and early 19th century particularly for women and theoretically, at least, enabled walking.

Pattens with a wooden sole and iron ring attached elevates the wearer safely above the foot high mud. These iron ring pattens were an English phenomenon.

Pattens with uppers made from delicate textiles were not actually suitable for grubby streets but were for women who took a few steps from the door to the carriage. They became a status symbol in themselves.

(source:  V&A. Pain and Pleasure)

Foot Binding

Chinese foot binding resulted in a mincing gait similar to that fashioned by modern high heels. Evidence shows that women with bound feet adapted to the condition and moved about.

It is likely that foot binding originated with palace dancers of the Tang dynasty (618-907) who were favoured for their naturally tiny feet, dainty steps and apparent lightness.

See: Shoe for a bound foot.

See: Cast of a bound foot.

(source:  V&A. Pain and Pleasure)


Due to the global seafaring trade in the 17th century an interest in Eastern equestrian footwear spread West. These men’s riding shoes had small heels and the idea soon took off as a fashion trend for upper-class men. During King Louis X1V reign, the right to wear red heels became the sole prerogative of those with court privilege in France. This was followed with heels being fashionable for women but the shoes were made using delicate materials, higher heels and pointed toes. This gave the impression that ladies with long skirts had dainty feet as you could only see the front of the shoe.

(source:  V&A. Pain and Pleasure)

Flat versus Heel

Flat, thin soled footwear came into fashion in the early 19th century as a reaction to ostentatious and aristocratic display. Heels returned to fashion by the mid 19th century after a 50 year absence.

High heels entered the 20th century as a normal aspect of female dress. The shorter hemlines of the flapper style brought the high heel into greater focus. The early 1950s saw the start of the trend for sliver-thin ‘stiletto’. Shoe makers used steel rods to create thinnest, highest heels possible.

Low ‘kitten’ heels were also popular with young ladies in the 1950s as a suggestion of a more demure femininity.

(source:  V&A. Pain and Pleasure)


Chopines were popular in Spain and Italy in the 16th century. They were made of wood or cork and could be as high as 21 inches. They were quite a status symbol with the aristocracy.

Platforms were worn by both men and women by the 1970s.

The 1980s saw more women entering the work place and, like the suffragettes from decades earlier, career women wore pumps with moderate heels that were feminine but avoided the suggestive sexuality. This contrasted with ‘power dressing’ by the successful businesswoman who liked stilettos and short skirts.

(source:  V&A. Pain and Pleasure)

Designer Shoes

The designer high heel took off after the television show ‘Sex in the City’. (1998-2004)

Designers such as Manolo Blahnik, Jimmy Choo, Christian Louboutin became celebrities in their own right and transformed the shoes they designed into objects of female desire.

Notice the red sole trademark of the Christian Louboutin shoes.

(source:  V&A. Pain and Pleasure)