Both feet and shoes have been fetishized as phallic and sexual symbols, imbued with thoughts of fertility. Indeed, to this day, people tie shoes onto the back of newlyweds’ cars; the porn industry offers “foot fetish” as its own category; and shoe fetishes have been popularized in American media in such shows as Sex in the City and Family Guy, and movies such as There’s Something About Mary and While You Were Sleeping. Stacy London and Clinton Kelly, co-hosts of the self-improvement reality show, What Not to Wear, both tell the women who come on their show that “you can tell a lot by a woman from her shoes;” meaning, worn out shoes reflect worn out women, while risqué high heels reflect a sexually empowered, independent woman, or, if you will, the woman who doesn’t have the time or money to devote to her physical appearance versus the woman who does.
Throughout most of history, shoes have been a marker of class. As early as 3500 B.C. the higher classes in Egypt are depicted in murals as wearing a precursor to the modern high heel, likely for ceremonial purposes. On a day-to-day basis, higher class Egyptians used pieces of leather held together by lacing shaped to resemble Ankh, a representation of life, while lower class Egyptians walked around barefoot. In the middle ages and through the 1400’s, the evolution of an “outer shoe” – coined Chopines in Turkey during the 1400’s – became a popular way to protect expensive shoes from mud, dirt, and other potential outside hazards.
Shoes as we know them today began taking form in the 1500’s, formed from two pieces, making the heel an actual part of the shoe, rather than just an outer shoe for protection of an indoor shoe. Because the heel of shoes fit nicely into stirrups and rarely slipped out, the new design grew in popularity during that century. “Riding heels” offered a clunky 1 – 1 ½ inch heel, perfectly functional for its namesake purpose. As the century progressed, however, the heel grew taller and thinner as shoes became increasingly stylized.
High heels as fashion and a symbol of stature and class are generally attributed to the petite Catherine de Medici, wife of King Henry II of France (discussed in more detail later), who took to donning very high heels as a political gesture, compensating for her small size, which often worked against her in court. The fashion she popularized moved through Tudor England, continued its dominance throughout the reign of Louis XIV of France, and reemerged in popularity during the Victorian era, continuing its prominence through the present.
What follows in this history is an examination of shoes as a representation of class from the 1400’s onward. I will look at the structure and make of shoes worn by certain classes, keeping in mind the proliferation as shoes not just as a statement of class, but as a qualifier of gender and a weapon of subjugation, discuss the development of decoration on shoes, and quantify the historical significance of shoes as it affects contemporary fashion.