Footwear at one time was probably just a practical invention to save the feet from heat and cold as is evident from the discovery of an ancient shoe in 1991. The moccasin worn by the mummified Stone Age man was made from animal hide and stuffed with hay with nothing fancy about it. Stone Age man would probably baulk at the kinds of shoes we have today.

The History of Shoes

Footwear at one time was probably just a practical invention to save the feet from heat and cold as is evident from the discovery of an ancient shoe in 1991. The moccasin worn by the mummified Stone Age man was made from animal hide and stuffed with hay with nothing fancy about it. Stone Age man would probably baulk at the kinds of shoes we have today.

Today, footwear has evolved into more than just a practicality. Colours, styles and trends have made the shoe industry a booming one with the focus being as much on functionality as on art. Fashion trends and social diktats have played a big role in the fascinating history of shoes.

Footwear in the 19th Century

Right up until the mid-19th century, shoes were made straight. There was no differentiation between the left and right foot, and men and women wore more or less the same kinds of shoes. Shoes with heels were flouted by men who dressed them up with colourful socks while women’s choices were more subtle. This was probably because women’s shoes were generally hidden under long flowing dresses. Towards the end of the century, however, things changed. Shoes were now made foot-specific to enhance comfort and there was a clear distinction between shoes worn by men and women.

The colours and styles of shoes in the 19th century were very predictable. There weren’t that many styles to choose from and colours were generally restricted to the standard black, brown, white and tan. The boot was the main footwear of the 19th century, and despite new delicate styles in footwear, the popularity of the boot remained for almost a century.

The Early 20th Century

Shoes however, began to undergo a transformation in the early 20th century when shorter skirts and dresses meant that shoes would be more visible. With the rise of the hemline after the First World War, low curved heels were the in thing, especially Mary Janes. The boot no longer appeared practical as the gap between the top of the boots and skirts looked a bit out of place. Boring colours of the yesteryear were gradually being replaced by more colourful shoes, especially for evening wear.

The Great Depression did not seem to have that big a bearing on the shoe industry because the 1930s suddenly saw a whole new range of fashionable shoes emerge. Oxfords, brogues, spectator pumps and even the ubiquitous sandal which had slipped off the fashion scene were now the footwear to be seen in. Cork soled wedges saw the revival of Platform type shoes and the instep on high heels began to bare more skin. Showing off one’s foot was once considered quite sacrilegious.

The invention of sports shoes by Converse in 1917, created a new revolution in footwear as sports shoes entered almost every household. The ‘Sneaker’ gradually pushed itself forward as footwear that was not restricted to sport. By the middle of 1940, the genteel era of ‘ladies and gentlemen’ was gradually replaced by a visible revolution in sports shoes and clothes.

Synthetic materials began to appear during World War II as restrictions were placed on the use of leather which was required by the military.  Fake leather, canvas and raffia became popular during this time and shoes became more affordable. There was also a new demand for peep-toes, sandals and open toed pumps.

Women’s shoes began to undergo another transformation with more sophisticated shoes emerging to highlight the foot. With more women entering the workplace, heels became taller and narrower.

The late 20th Century and 21st Century

However, towards the end of the 20th century, boots made a comeback. The focus on comfort and healthy feet saw the popularity of high heels decline. Tall stiletto heels were beginning to be viewed as dangerous because of reports of accidents in quite a few women.

Short white boots called Go-Go boots became a popular addition to the wardrobe as they were considered great for dancing when paired with a mini skirt. The 70s also saw the resurgence of platform shoes and wedges but fashion and trends no longer dictated the kind of styles that were worn. With a whole range of styles and colours to choose from, women wore whatever pleased them.

Today too there has been a revival of the pointy toed stiletto and other retro shoes, but people’s choices are not restricted by what’s in fashion. People these days wear whatever catches their eye.

From the outlandish to the more conservative pair, there is a whole array of shoes to choose from to suit all budgets. Thank God for that! I can’t imagine my shoe rack being restricted to just two pairs of practical shoes!