When you look down at your feet, do your shoes give away your birthplace, income level or your social status? Do they tell the world what you do for a living, what your hobbies are or whether or not you’re married? Well, they used to.
You Are What You Wear
Shoes have been around in one form or another for thousands of years. Some of the earliest shoes were actually sandals worn by Egyptians and depicted the owner’s pecking order in society. Peasants tended to wear “comfortable” sandals made from woven papyrus with a flat sole that were lashed to their ankles with reeds. More affluent citizens could be identified by sandals with pointed toes – especially if they were colored red or yellow. If you were a slave, chances are you went without shoes altogether.
When Moses climbed Mount Sinai to chat with God, the big guy obviously wasn’t impressed by his footwear. Instead, he commanded Moses to “Put off thy shoes, for the ground whereon thou standest is holy.” Discarding one’s shoes was and continues to be in many societies a demonstration of humility and piety. But, for the rest of us, shoes continue to speak volumes about who we are, how much money we make and what we do for a living. Many Greek aristocrats owned so many pairs of shoes that they hired slaves to carry them when they traveled.
Comfort Isn’t Everything
It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that sandals evolved into shoes with crafted leather uppers – mainly for warmth and protection from the elements. The “Sabot” was a primitive shoe that was made in only two sizes: big and bigger. They tended to be very uncomfortable for two reasons. First, men’s and women’s hosiery were not always available and second, shoes were made on a single last, so there were no right or left shoes. It wasn’t until 1818 that right and left shoes were made using their own unique lasts. The Sabot was eventually replaced by the English clog, made with a wood sole and a fabric upper.
During the Crusades, shoes defined the wearer. While peasants and others involved in manual labor wore sturdy, functional shoes, aristocrats often wore shoes that were clearly for show instead of purpose. Many shoes worn by the wealthy had toes so long that they needed to be supported by chains fastened to their legs, slightly below their knees. Even the church got into regulating fashion. The clergy was outraged by parishioners who wore shoes whose toes were so long, they prevented them from being able to kneel in church. As a result, they decreed that no one wearing shoes with toes longer than two inches could attend services.
In the 16th century, shoes often inhibited getting around instead of facilitating it. Not to be outdone by the length of their predecessor’s shoes’, French women began wearing shoes with higher and higher heels. Some Venetian women wore shoes that were over 13 inches high, requiring that they be carried by servants and hoisted in and out of their gondolas. And Chinese husbands concerned about their wives’ infidelity had their feet bound, causing permanent disfigurations.
If the Shoe Fits
By the 1900’s shoes were at least partially made using machines in over 150 sizes. And for good reason. The average American woman buys more than 5 pairs of shoes a year – men buy 2. To standardize sizing, King Edward II determined in 1324 that an “average” size shoe measured 39 barleycorns when laid end to end and was given the arbitrary size of “13.” All other sizes are based on this standard. The largest shoe size on record belongs to a Florida man who wears a size 42 shoe – or 68 barleycorns!
So, the next time you slip on that pair of “loafers,” remember that your shoes could be shouting to the world just who and what you really are!
Written for and excerpted from Armchair Reader The Gigantic Reader – West Side Publishing (September 7, 2009)