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A brief history of the not-so-humble shoe

It’s a matter of personal expression. The legions of women in their knee-high Hunter boots avoiding the rain in the most fashionable of ways. Work boots, casually resting below the hipster’s cuffed jeans. Those beautiful brown leather loafers for the highbrow professionals. The immortal symbol of fashion and cool that are Chuck Taylors. If you want to make a statement, shoes are the way to do it. But this level of personal choice is not the universal story of footwear. Far from it, actually. For centuries, shoes were a distinguishing symbol of class; dividing society into neat, easily identifiable groups.

Looking back to prehistory, the best evidence suggests people shod themselves in leather or animal skins to keep their feet safe. The iceman Ötzi, an amazingly well-preserved hunter-gather believed to have lived around 3300 BCE, wore sophisticated, two-part shoes with leather and fur to keep his feet warm.

But civilisational change and domestication caused a paradigm shift. As social structure stratified and wealth became more concentrated, clothing became the easiest way to distinguish the classes. In Egypt, you had to remove your shoes around someone of better social standing than yourself, and only the elites could wear highly decorated sandals or, oddly, ones with upturned toes. Greece didn’t have the same amount of stratification, but the elites did wear more “For the working class, shoes remained a matter of utility” decorative and elaborate sandals than the commoners. Unsurprisingly, the destitute often went barefoot. Ancient Rome really caught its stride with social stratification in clothing: sumptuary laws meant slaves and senators, plebeians and patricians all wore different clothing. Red boots were for senators, basic shoes for the patricians, and wooden shoes for the poorest of the free people, while slaves predictably went barefoot.

As the Middle Ages took shape, social elites wore shoes of velvet, silk and myriad other beautiful fabrics, often adorned with class-defining gold and jewels. Peasants, because of law or poverty, wore simple leather shoes designed with nothing but the utility of safety and warmth in mind. Meanwhile, poulaines — long-toed shoes popular among the upper echelons of society — came on the scene, too, and by the Renaissance, this pointy piece of footgear was the standard for society’s elite. For those with a loftier fashion sense, chopines — platform shoes that rose 20 or 30 inches into the air — were so impractical that wearers often needed servants just to help them stand. In fact, these shoes destroyed the feet of the wearer in excruciating ways, serv- ing no purpose beyond displaying wealth and fashion. Yet, as if the uncomfortable nature of the shoes was not enough of a discouragement, the law in many places dictated that only the rich could wear them.

As wealth grew, however, the law became less and less necessary to directly force these classifications. We move from enforcing class divisions with sumptuary laws to simply seeing wealth limit the choices of the poor and expand them for the rich. De jure stratification becomes de facto. For the first time, however, we see an odd reversal with the rich investing in working-class fashions like the frock coat.

Still, for the working class, shoes, and clothing in general, remained a matter of utility. Work boots were not a fashion statement but a necessity of working the docks. A pair of cowboy boots wasn’t meant to be a mark of being southern or western but were legitimately the best possible way to ride horses and do hard ranch work on the plains of the United States.

Meanwhile, the elites slowly invested in less ridiculous, yet equally ritzy, footwear. While a pair of loafers or high-heels – yes, men wore heels for centuries – were nowhere near as impractical as those lovely poulaines, they still lacked the utility of working-class footwear. Loafers didn’t – and don’t – allow the business executive behind a desk to do their job any better than boots or sandals would have, but they denote the fashion of the day and showcase the ability of the executive to afford the shoe in the first place.

By now, the trend should be obvious: the poor have often had to wear shoes that fit their job requirements or their financial restraints, while the rich are free to care about fashion and public perception, disregarding utility. Where things become interesting is in the modern, post-industrial Western world. The United States, the UK and much of Europe have significant middle-class populations, most of whom work white-collar jobs — the type that require loafers, not cowboy boots. This would suggest that those blue-collar styles are disappearing in a sea of three-piece suits and topcoats, and yet the exact opposite is happening. Instead, workwear has been co-opted into what The New York Times Magazine calls the “ever-accelerating chic of ‘yesterday’s blue-collar brands’”.

On top of that, changing economics means the trend isn’t just for the rich anymore. With copycat manufacturing and growing wealth, “Working-class garb of yesterday is to- day’s biggest trend” large swaths of society have the money to follow high fashion trends, and in a strange turn of events, they’re choosing to spend that money on clothes with a working-class origin like chambray shirts and selvedge denim. Unlike recent history, in which the poor tried to dress like the rich, people all over the class spectrum are following the trend introduced by those Industrial-era gentlemen: the working class garb of yesterday is today’s biggest trend.

The odd class-blindness of the trend reveals an underlying classism. Leather, blue-collar-style shoes are outlandishly pricey – just look at a pair of work boots from Redwings. Even in this age of fashion over utility, the wealthy can distinguish themselves through the brand names of their fashion choices, while others hunt for knockoffs and bargains. So, though the trends can be followed by anyone, it’s the quality and the label that remind us all where those age-old divisions lie. Class lines drawn not with poulaines and chopines but with Polo and Jimmy Choo

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