A Brief History of Shoes

By Tim Lambert

Ancient Shoes

Long before history began wore shoes. During the Ice Age, people called Cro-Magnons wore simple leather boots. They lived during an ice age so protecting your feet from the cold was essential. In Egypt, shoes were not necessary because of the hot climate. Most people went barefoot much of the time but they sometimes wore sandals made from papyrus. Well off Egyptians wore leather sandals.

A people called the Assyrians ruled an empire in the Middle East between 900 BC and 612 BC. They equipped their soldiers with sturdy boots, which helped on long marches.

Roman soldiers wore tough boots called caligae. Well off Romans wore a type of closed shoe called a calceus when they were outdoors. However, you did not wear them indoors. Instead, you put on a kind of flip-flop called a solea. However Roman slaves usually went barefoot.

Medieval Shoes

Saxon and Viking people wore simple leather boots and shoes but in the 15th century, rich people wore shoes with long pointed toes. They were called crakows because they were believed to have originated in Krakow. (However, only the upper classes wore them. Ordinary people had shoes with round toes). However, at the end of the 15th century long toes went out of fashion and the wealthy began to wear shoes with square or round toes.

In the Middle Ages, peasants wore wooden clogs for working in muddy conditions. In the towns, people wore wooden platforms called pattens under their shoes. (They had straps to hold them on). Some pattens were several inches thick.

In the Middle Ages shoemakers were called cordwainers. The word is derived from cordovan the name for leather from Cordova in Spain.

Renaissance Shoes

In the 16th century, some people had deliberate cuts in their shoes called slashes. Sometimes they were slip-on shoes but sometimes they were tied with latches. Early Tudor shoes did not have heels. However, in the late 16th century women in England began to wear shoes with high heels.

In the early 17th century it was fashionable for men to wear boots. However, in the late 17th century some people began to wear shoes with buckles. In the 18th century, there were many different styles of shoes. Rich people had buckles made of silver! Furthermore, in the 17th century and 18th century, wealthy women wore shoes of satin or silk. Often they were embroidered. Outdoors people wore overshoes like sandals of wood or leather over their shoes to protect them.

19th Century Shoes

In the early 19th century shoes were made with a right foot and a left foot instead of being interchangeable. Men very often wore boots in the 19th century and it became acceptable for women to wear them too. However, at the end of the century, it became fashionable for women to wear shoes again. In the 19th century, shoes had laces rather than buckles.

In the early 19th century a new type of boot was named after the Duke of Wellington. At first, they were made of leather but from the 1850s they were made of rubber.

In the 19th century boots and shoes were mass-produced for the first time and they were cheaper. In 1885 Jan Matzeliger introduced a machine for lasting shoes (lasting is the last part of the process of making shoes).

However, in the 19th century, there were still some poor parents who could not afford to buy boots or shoes for their children. In some British towns at the end of the 19th century, a charity called the Boot Fund was founded to help provide boots and shoes for poor children.

20th Century Shoes

In the 20th century with rising living standards there were a huge variety of styles of shoes. In the 1920s women’s shoes were often decorated with beads. During the Second World War because leather was in short supply some people wore clogs rather than shoes. Then in the late 1950s stiletto heels became fashionable for women. In the 1950s some women wore slip-on shoes called mules.

For men in the late 1950s shoes with long pointed toes called winkle pickers were popular. In the 1960s boots for women came back into fashion and in the 1970s shoes with platform soles were popular for both sexes.

Meanwhile, trainers were designed in 1949 by Adolf Dassler. Flip-flops were invented in 1956. The famous Dr Martens boot was introduced in 1960

Last revised 2024