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The History of Shoes: Ancient and Early Footwear

Dolores's interest in fashion history dates from her teenage years when vintage apparel was widely available in thrift stores.

Shoes are the foundation of every outfit. They allow a person to move safely and comfortably on unforgiving surfaces, protect the foot from the elements, and add that final statement of panache.

The oldest surviving shoes date back around 10,000 years. These sandals made of rope were found in Oregon in the United States. The oldest leather shoe was found in a cave in Armenia and is about 5,500 years old. These simple shoes were made of a single piece of leather and were stitched with leather (see video at the bottom of this article).

Archeological evidence suggests that East Asians may have worn shoes 42,000 years ago. A skeleton studied by anthropologist Erik Trinkaus shows slimmer toe bones than most early humans who walked barefoot. Walking barefoot is thought to cause thicker lesser toe bones. Studies of foot anatomy in several ancient skeletons show a general change between 26,000 and 30,000 years ago, when the smaller toe bones began to appear less robust, due, experts believe, to the support given by footwear.

A 27,000-year-old Russian skeleton was found to have small lesser toe bones and ivory beads on and around the ankle and foot, suggesting decoration and the fact that the shoes were not merely practical, but worn as a display of status.

Sandals: Ancient Footwear

Sandals are a simple form of foot covering consisting of a sole held to the foot with straps. They can be made of leather, plastic, straw, rope, metal, or old tires.

Suited well to hot, dry climates and rocky regions, sandals protect the foot from venomous insects, stones, and burning hot sand. They also help keep the foot aired out and cool.

Sandal Facts

  • Between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago, the Anasazi of the American Southwest wore braided, woven, flexible sandals fastened to the foot with a V-shaped strap.
  • The Japanese created the geta, a wood-soled sandal worn with socks called tabi. For over 2,000 years, the geta has been a clog or platform-style sandal very much like a flip-flop that keeps the foot elevated from dampness and mud.
  • In India, simple open sandals made of wood held on with a knob between the great and second toe called paduka have kept the foot slightly elevated from the ground for over 5,000 years.
  • Sandals are depicted on the tomb reliefs of Ancient Egypt. Beautiful sandals were a status symbol worn by the elite outdoors. Even the Pharaoh did not wear sandals indoors. Though most Ancient Egyptians went barefoot, sandals became quite common to those who could afford them. Notice the picture of Ramses III (at the top of this page) wearing what appear to be glorified flip-flops curled up at the toe.
  • Unlike most European shoes, archeological evidence shows that the Ancient Egyptians made shoes for the right and left foot.
  • When Howard Carter discovered and opened the tomb of King Tut (1341–1323 BCE) he found 93 separate items or fragments of footwear, including elaborately decorated flip-flops with marquetry veneer.
  • Alexander the Great unified Greece in the 4th century BCE, ushering in an unprecedented age of increased wealth and leisure, along with the development of science, the arts, and sports. This led to the creation of many sandal styles, and rules set out as to which sandal was worn for status or specific kinds of occasions.
  • Rome, like Greece, restricted the use of the sandal. The word sandal comes from the Latin word "sandalium." Roman-style sandals, or gladiator sandals, have had several revivals in the 20th century and are quite popular today.

When the Christian Roman Empire decreed that bare toes were immodest in mixed company, the sandal disappeared, except for in cloistered monastic orders, from Western culture for over 1,000 years.


A moccasin is a simple shoe often made out of a single piece of leather and stitched together, held closed with leather laces. Famous for being worn by indigenous Americans and early American pioneers, the basic moccasin type of shoe was worn for thousands of years worldwide.

Neolithic people made simple shoes like moccasins which were worn until the Middle Ages.

Moccasins can be plain leather or decorated with beading to create beautiful footwear. They are still available in stores today. There are internet sites that instruct you on how you can make your own. (Link below)

Moccasins Circa 1860

Moccasins Circa 1860

Clogs, Pattens, and Sabot

Wood soled shoes are thought, by some experts, to have been worn by the Romans. Whenever they originated, clogs and other wood-soled shoes have been popular footwear worn by peasants and workers throughout Europe since the Middle Ages. Like the Japanese wood-soled geta, the elevation provided by a thick, wooden sole protects the foot from mud, road debris, stones, cold, and dampness.

Klompen are the all wood clogs worn in Holland and pop up today as souvenirs in the Netherlands.

Pattens were a type of slip-on wood-soled overshoe worn during the Middle Ages and up until Victorian times. The wood sole was held onto the foot by straps. Usually worn outdoors, they were occasionally worn indoors for mopping or walking on wet, or cold stone floors. Later versions were made of two joined metal rings.

In the Late Middle Ages, a form of platform clog called chopines became popular with the elite, at first to protect the thin shoes of the day, then as status symbols that increased the height of the wearer. When prostitutes began to wear them in order to be seen in the street, the style fell out of favor.

The sabot was the traditional French wood-soled shoe worn by factory workers and peasants. Legend has it that angry workers used their sabots to damage factory machinery, leading to the word 'sabotage.'

Clogs came back in fashion in the 1970s. With leather uppers and some with rubberized or cork soles, they are still popular footwear for healthcare professionals and others who appreciate the easy slip-on style and wide toes.





Early Shoe Fashion Excess in Europe

Until the 19th century, both shoes were the same, not made for the right or left foot. The shoe would gradually begin to fit the foot properly after some wear. During the early Middle Ages (also called the Dark Ages) shoes were very simple, moccasin-like footwear often made with a single piece of leather that was cut, folded, and fastened to the foot.

It was not until the High and Late Middle Ages when new ideas and technologies enabled a new kind of creativity to enter into the production of shoes (as well as clothing) that the idea of fashion as a distinctive style and design that conveyed status on the wearer appeared.

The first real shoe fashion excess showed up in the late 1100s. Long, pointed toes gained brief popularity, fizzled out, then came back in a huge way in the 1300s with the poulaine. Restricted to the elite, the fancy styles, pointed toes, and expensive materials caused the Church some grief due to the immodesty of the excess.

As the growing merchant class increased their wealth, the aristocracy wanted to protect their status. Sumptuary laws that restricted the types of clothing a person could wear depending on their station were passed to prevent the upstart bourgeoisie from mimicking the elite class. Restrictions were placed on the length of a shoe's toe, limiting the length according to the wearer's income and position in society.

By the end of the 15th century, the pointy toe gave way to a wider shoe called a hornbill or bearpaw. Width was also limited according to the wearer's status.


High Heels and Buckled Shoes

The Ancient Greeks introduced a type of platform sandal worn by actors in plays. The cork-soled shoes showed the importance of the character depending on the height of the shoe.

Later, 15th-century Venetian women wore stilted mules (slip-on shoes) or chopines to display their status. The finest shoes were embellished with tack work and punch work, earning the anger of the Church.

In the 1590s, high heels displaced platform mules, then rose higher during the reign of Louis XIV. The wearing of high heels signified status and wealth, creating a regal appearance for the wearer.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, metal buckles were added to the shoes, replacing laces. Buckles were made of brass, silver, or steel and could be decorated with jewels and gemstones. The most beautiful and expensively made buckled heels were worn by the wealthiest people, creating the term 'well heeled' to describe someone who was very rich. Lavishly made shoes with heels and elaborate buckles were abandoned after the French Revolution.

The high heel rose to varying heights during the 1700s with English heels that were low to medium in height, and thicker than on the continent. In France, they wore heels with a slight curve. But the Italians wore the high, narrow spiked heel we call stiletto heels.

World's Oldest Sandal: 10,000 Years Old

References and Further Reading

  • Shoes A History From Sandals to Sneakers by Giorgio Riello and Peter McNeil
  • Shoes An Illustrated History by Rebecca Shawcross
  • Shoes The Complete Sourcebook by John Peacock

Questions & Answers

Question: What was the first popular sneaker?

Answer: Sneaker type shoes have been around since the mid-1800s when vulcanized rubber was used on the bottoms of shoes for outdoor activities. Called Plimsolls in England, they were worn for tennis and croquet. Interest in sports and outdoor activity led to increased production of rubber-soled shoes.

In the 1890s, Keds Champions became the first mass-marketed sneakers. Converse was founded in 1908, and Converse All-Stars were introduced in 1917. Converse hired Chuck Taylor, an American basketball player to sell shoes in 1921. Taylor suggested some modifications in the design to make the shoes more flexible. The shoes were the go-to choice for gym classes and were used by the American military for athletics. By the 1960s, Chuck Taylor Converse sneakers captured 80% of the sneaker market. After losing popularity in the 1980s, Chuck Taylors were picked up by artists, musicians, and followers of punk and later grunge styles.

Question: What is the history of alligator shoes?

Answer: Alligator hide was used to make footwear in the United States of America since the early 1800s. The tanning process was such that the material did not hold up well and the hide fell out of fashion. Alligator hide was used to make boots for Confederate troops during the American Civil War. When new technologies of the late 1800s improved durability, alligator hide regained popularity. By the mid 20th century, the American alligator population was so decimated that the government restricted hunting. After restrictions, the alligator population began to recover. Today, farm-raised alligators are used for their hides as well as meat.

Alligators are native to China and to the southeast U.S.