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History shows little new in women’s shoes

By LEANNE ITALIE Published: March 28, 2010
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Craftsmen and haute designers have been tweaking women’s footwear for centuries to reflect culture, politics and utility, but few have broken through with truly renegade reinventions.

"There are adaptations, but actual world-changing innovation is a lot less common than we might want to believe,” said Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto.

The museum collects, exhibits and interprets footwear from around the world, with 13,000 examples of early designs and styles. Many are still referenced today, from thong sandals of the ancient East to towering chopines of Renaissance Europe.

Semmelhack credits thinkers such as Salvatore Ferragamo for his wartime cork wedges and Alexander McQueen for 10-inch lobster claws, but she sees celebrity designers as perhaps the most influential development.

"Did you even think about who made your Keds? Over the course of the 20th century, shoemakers have gone from anonymous craftsmen to fashion trendsetters,” she said.

No one knows precisely when shoes began. Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis theorize western Eurasians used supportive footwear nearly 30,000 years ago, based on a shortening and weakening of the bones of the smallest four toes while leg muscles remained long and strong. Simpler, ill-fitting coverings protected feet in harsh climates about 50,000 years ago, according to other research.

The oldest surviving specimens of shoes appear to be sagebrush bark strap sandals found in caves of the Northern Great Basin in Western North America that are thought to be more than 9,000 years old.

Sandals haven’t changed much since, or from ancient times in Egypt, Greece and China. Strappy gladiator looks have never gone out of style. Bejeweled thongs mimic the placing of precious gems on shoes for royalty. Platforms in the West can be traced in an almost unbroken timeline through to Carmen Miranda and Lady Gaga.

A surviving Spanish chopine mule with tooled leather over cork heels dates to before 1540 as one of the earliest platforms, Semmelhack said. One of the oldest depictions of people in high wooden clogs is "oriental” servants found in stone carvings on a 12th-century church in France, according to the Bata museum’s exhibition "On a Pedestal: From Renaissance Chopines to Baroque Heels.”

High, narrow stilettos didn’t come into their own in the West until the 1950s, but chunkier heels detached from the front of a sole were common among the upper crust in the 17th and 18th centuries.