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The Political History of Shoes by Kirsten Anderberg

The Political History of Shoes

By Kirsten Anderberg (
Written April 2005

Shoes. We all have some. We rarely think about them. But shoes are political. Charities buy poor kids shoes in every city. The type of shoes you have, and how many, are a sign of social status. (Remember Marcos' 1500 pairs of shoes?!) Women have endured foot binding and high heels. Some people wear wooden shoes, some wear sandals, some wear fur and skin boots. There are clown shoes, snow shoes, tap dancing shoes, Earth Shoes, and there are also shoe museums all over the world, including Seattle. Shoes have changed over the years due to new materials, such as rubber, becoming available, and due to design changes, such as the left and right shoes having different patterns. Studies of one Ice Age mummy suggested he did not travel further than 40 miles from home, and his shoes reflected that, both in utility and materials used. Even the ways we attach our shoes are changing. Learning how to tie shoelaces has been superceded by velcro shoe closures for younger kids.

It is assumed that shoes were one of the first things humans made, to protect their feet from hot sand, sharp rocks, etc. while they traveled looking for food. And there are cultures that are still wearing sandal designs very similar to those worn by their ancient ancestors. Ancient Egyptian sandals had class distinctions. A commoner's sandal was plain, but nobility's sandals had a long curved horn protruding from the toe, much as we see characterizing "elf" shoes today. Sandals are still the predominant shoe worn in most warm climates. The oldest pair of shoes we have uncovered on Earth so far are a 10,000 year old pair of sandals, made out of sagebrush, housed at the University of Oregon's Museum of Natural and Cultural History. As a kid growing up in Southern California, I rarely wore shoes and if I did, they were sandals. When I was about 6 years old, I became friends with a girl who had just come from Hawaii. She said kids did not have to wear shoes to school in Hawaii (this was the early 1960's). I was in awe of that concept. And beyond optional shoes, in East India, in the 16th century, only the elite were allowed to wear shoes.

As always, laws tell us a lot about the evolution of shoes and cultural attachments to them over time. Around the 3rd century A.D., common Roman women were banned from adoring their footwear with gold or jewels. The Middle Ages were heavy on footwear and clothing regulations, the function of which was to enforce class distinctions. In the 14th century, Edward III made laws about which fabrics different sectors of society could wear. By the 15th century, laws and mores about shoe styles and lengths were implemented in England. If you were a commoner, your shoes could extend no more than 2 inches past your toes. If you were a merchant, your shoes could not be longer than 6 1/2 inches past your toes. If you were a gentleman, your shoes could extend 12 inches past your toes, and if you were a nobleman, your shoes were allowed to extend 24 inches past your toes! Talk about absolutely useless shoes! The extended toes on these shoes were pointed, and we will later see this pointy toed shoe reappear in American 20th century fashion.

That uselessness of shoes with 24 inch pointed tips reminds me of the white shoes that were so common in the 1960-70's, and can still be seen on some old timers today. Jim Page, a Seattle busker, wrote a song back in the 1970's that summed this phenomenon up succinctly: "...Now some folks work real hard for their pay, some don't do nothin', but they get paid anyway, some people don't mind gettin' dirt on their hands, some folks run just as fast as they can, and they would just naturally choose, those pure white ultra bright sanitary got your hair all plastered with Palm Palmade, you got underarm deodorant and aftershave, you got to watch real careful where you walk on the street, so as not to insult your elite feet, 'cause you surely would hate to lose those pure white ultra bright sanitary shoes...Now you can wear 'em high, you can wear 'em low, but they really look good on the patio, and if you really want to make that big advance, get a white belt, and maroon pants, then you know you've paid your dues, wearing pure white ultra bright sanitary shoes...Now you can't take out the garbage or sweep the floor, you can hardly go to the grocery store, you can't pump gas or fix a flat, you can't do anything dressed like that, but that's the whole idea behind the ruse, of wearing pure white ultra bright sanitary shoes. Now I been down on the bottom, lookin' up at the street, some people you can tell just by lookin' at their feet. Some'll step on you last, some'll step on you first, but the white ones, they always get you the worst, and it gives you the underfoot blues, to get stepped on, by pure white ultra bright sanitary shoes."

Speaking of shoes and buskers (street performing), I pulled into Carmel, Ca. one day in 1983 in my school bus, and decided to try to busk their main drag. I set up and began to busk, and had a small crowd gathering when about 3 songs into the set, a cop showed up and told me it was illegal to play music for money in Carmel city limits. He said Carmel had some wacky laws, such as no jukeboxes were allowed that charged money, you are not allowed to sit on fire hydrants, and women were not allowed to wear heels over 6 inches. And apparently laws regulating the height of women's shoes, date back to at least the 15th century in Venice. What do shoes mean? Why would certain shoes be banned for some and not others? That is the politics of shoes. In Sienna during the 15th century, it was illegal for anyone other than prostitutes to wear flat shoes or slippers in public.

Laws were enacted in France during the 16th century regulating shoe tip length. Princes, again, could wear 24 inch tips, and gentlemen, 6 inch tips. (I am chuckling thinking of the inherent penis size comparisons these protruding shoe tip lengths must have generated in their time). Akin to the sheer impracticality of 24 inch shoe tips, we see pedestals and high heels, and their legal regulation, for women. In the 18th century, it was supposedly a crime and grounds for marriage annulment if a woman "tricked" a man into marrying her by wearing high heels, whatever that could possibly mean!

In Venice in the 16th century, 13 inch shoes that put women on pedestals, called "chopines," were in vogue. And Queen Catherine de Medici was said to have worn "chopine" shoes in the Renaissance, because she was short and wanted to appear larger. Unlike the modern high heel shoe, where a woman has part of her foot on the ground and another part of her foot unnaturally raised, chopines simply put the entire shoe atop a walking pedestal. The utility of wobbling around on 13 inch pedestals is questionable, but if the utility was to show your social status rather than to walk, then they served their purpose just fine.

In the 16th century, women were balancing on all kinds of weird contraptions. An elevated "shoe protector" resembling low stilts had women tripping as they tried to walk, and by the 18th century, women were wearing elaborate metal "protectors" for their elegant shoes, to keep them from getting dirty by touching the ground. These shoe protectors give new meaning to the concept of allowing women to stand on their own two feet!

Much of shoe elitism has to do with class distinctions. Before the French Revolution, large, bare feet were negatively associated with poor peasants and workers. It was the elite who could afford to have small limbs and tiny feet. And wealthy children were forced to wear shoes to keep their feet smaller, just as China's foot binding for women. In China, from the 10th century to the 20th century, women's feet were bound and literally deformed, and women left crippled, for this "feminine" fashion. By age 3, a girl would have all but her first toe broken, then her feet were bound tightly with cloth to keep her feet from growing any bigger than 4 inches. Rich women had their feet bound in China for over 1,000 years as a sign of wealth and prestige. These little deformed feet were highly eroticized.

This eliteness of small feet became something women latched onto as a symbol of femininity, of privilege, and also of weakness and dependence on servants, and a Victorian type of female submission that indicated wealth. This feigned weakness and helpless dependence upon others' servitude are considered very sexy traits in women, even in mainstream American culture today. Look at Paris Hilton. As weird as it sounds, small feet on women are a reassuring symbol to men that they are in charge, and thus men support the continual eroticism of small feet on women to date, as a symbol of female dependence upon men, is my take on it.

Working class folks in the U.S. during the Civil War often went barefoot from spring to fall. They usually had shoes for school and church, but they did not wear them when they did not need to. There are reports of many folks who never got a pair of their own shoes until their teens, before commercial shoes were available. But with the industrialization of shoe making, more people were able to afford shoes in the mid-1800's. And for the first time, different patterns of the right and left shoes were standardized. To compete with other shoemakers, styles emerged, along with pointy toed shoes, which crammed feet into unnatural shapes for fashion. In past centuries, those 12+ inch pointy shoes had the point start after the tip of the toes. In current shoes, though, the point starts well into the toes, compressing toes into 1/2-1/3 the space they naturally take up. Even today, many women have toes that are crumpled together, with one toe laying upon another, due to pointed toes and raised heels that jam the feet into the pointy toe area, with no room.

By the 1930's, women's feet were finally experiencing some liberation. Women began to quit wanting to emulate queens and royalty and instead wanted to be more athletic. The saddle shoe became popular, considered clunky and big, yet rebellious, and finally women were allowed toe room and a flat shoe. Supposedly the popularity of the dance the jitterbug played into the popularity of the saddle shoe as it was hard to do the energetic dance in heels. Yet today, it is still reported that women have 4 times more foot problems than men, due solely to high heels.

It is funny that we see foot laws reemerge in the United States in the 1960's over the regulation of barefootedness, in response to hippies. And in recent years, schools all over America have begun to enforce strict dress codes, that include things such as Chicago's banning of the red/black version of Air Jordan shoes on campus, describing the wearing of these shoes as "disruptive." In Florida, a middle school banned two-toned shoes, but solid green shoes are not allowed either, and heels cannot be over 1 inch in height. Some U.S. schools currently ban black shoes, which is interesting when you juxtapose the idea that women are not allowed to wear white shoes in Afghanistan as per a 1999 report. James reports that for some unknown reason, Los Angeles has banned wearing condoms on your feet in some of its public schools. He also says that it is illegal to attach mirrors to your feet in Australia, to stop men from looking up women's skirts.

Shoes and feet have long been associated with good luck, even horse shoes. Babies who came out feet first are considered magical in some cultures. And it is thought the concept of shoes as good luck may be related to the concept that the rich had nice shoes as a class privilege, so people used shoes as a token of wealth and luck. (Oddly, I have an old gold charm a woman from Turkey gave me decades ago, and I always wondered why a shoe?!) One old custom places an old shoe outside your door before leaving on a long journey for good luck. Throwing shoes after someone leaving on travels was also a good luck symbol, which is related not only to throwing confetti and rice at weddings, but also tying shoes to a car's bumper as the couple drives away. One ritual says a shoe thrown over a house will land pointing in the direction fate will take you in shortly. And wishcraft tells folks to put gems in their shoes to find treasure. In Spain, women would throw their shoes at Matadors after bullfights to get their attention.

It is said to be good luck if shoes fall onto their soles. Tripping over a boot is considered bad luck. Some believe you need to put your right shoe on first and take it off first, before the left foot, to avoid bad luck. Unless it is Friday, and you do it unintentionally, and then it means you are sure to get into a fight. One tradition says putting your left foot on the ground first in the morning is bad luck. Some say walking around with one shoe on and one off will bring bad luck for a year. Or that putting your shoes on the wrong feet by accident foretells an accident to the feet will occur soon. Some say not to place your shoes higher than your head while in bed, and that tying shoes together and handing them on a nail is bad luck. It is a bad omen for actors to put shoes on a chair in their dressing room.

It was long thought that you inherited the karma and life energy of those whose shoes you wore, and thus it was considered bad luck to accept someone's old shoes, as you may inherit their troubles and ills as well. This "wives' tale" may have been created to discourage borrowing others' shoes, when they were so precious. But it was also thought you could inherit good karma and good luck through a successful person's shoes too. The phrase "following in your father's footsteps" was based on the practice of bequeathing your shoes to your kin upon death, as shoes were expensive, and your son literally walking in your shoes, leaving the same footprints. Another wives' tale that may have utility was putting red pepper in shoes during winter to keep feet warm. Shoes given as a Christmas gift is considered a bad luck omen, and giving shoes to a friend is said to predict them walking away from you. Sticking a hairpin in a shoe is said to guarantee meeting a good friend. And hanging old shoes up as tokens of good luck on the roof of a house is common. An old shoe is considered good luck charm. On Friday the 13th, superstitious people only wear old shoes to thwart off evil. Old shoes are also burned to start life anew.

Shoelaces took a while to catch on as new fangled things, and were also considered effeminate, so men resisted them at first. But as time wore on, rituals involving shoelaces evolved. It is said if your shoelace comes undone, without being caught on anything to pull it out, your true love is thinking about you at that moment. A broken shoelace came to represent bad luck. And if a right shoe lace came undone, it was good luck, and if the left one came undone, it foresaw bad luck. And if you want the coolest shoelace patterns in town, check this site out ( for more lacing methods than you could ever need!

In Japan, street shoes are left at the door so dirt does not get tracked into the house from the street. Etiquette about which slippers can be worn where, such as slippers are not worn in rooms with tatami mats, and toilet slippers are not worn outside the bathroom, are things Americans would need to be taught. I hear even in Japanese grade schools, there is a room for street shoes, and the kids wear a special slip-on shoe that stays at school, which is very different than American culture where our street shoes go from our schools to the streets and then through our kitchens, bathrooms, and bedrooms.

The most expensive shoes sold yet to date are one of the pairs of ruby red slippers Judy Garland wore in the Wizard of Oz. Neil Armstrong's boots that he walked on the moon with in 1969 are not in the Smithsonian, but rather they dumped them in space before returning home, afraid they might be contaminated. There is an old woman who lives in a shoe with too many children, and Wynken, Blynken and Nod sailed off in a wooden shoe. Many sayings include shoes, such as "walk a mile in my shoes," and "if the shoe fits, wear it." There is a shoe as a marker in the board game Monopoly. Songs refer to shoes too. In my lifetime, "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'" is probably the most well known shoe song. Elvis' "Don't Step On My Blue Suede Shoes" also ranks high as a familiar pop song about shoes.

High Quality Professional Clown Shoes

You can find an odd assortment of shoe things online. I found a pair of "savvy bachelor mop slippers" ( so you can clean the floor as you walk around the house! Those are much more practical than high heels! You can join the national non-profit "odd shoe exchange" ( where people with two different sized feet can trade single shoes with one anther. You can order your own personalized high quality clown shoes ( or make your own snowshoes ( You can buy vegetarian shoes ( - vegetarian shoes) or make your own rubber tire shoes ( or sandals ( Make your own elaborate moccasins ( or make simple one piece soft sole moccasins, with a center seam ( Learn about other cultures through their shoes! Look at your own shoes. What can people tell about you just by looking at your feet?


Interested in learning more about shoes? Look into online resources about how shoes have changed over the years. If you are looking for different shoes of your own try some new dress shoes or discover the fun styles of rocket dog shoes. There are all kinds of styles, and though times may change Steve Madden shoes keep you in style.

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