If you start trying to count them, you can probably list several old adages, tall tales and popular sayings about shoes. There are stories about meeting someone who doesn’t have any, sayings about what it’s like to walk in someone else’s and sage advice about how you can always tell something about someone by their shoes. They are definitely one of the first items that humans ever put on their bodies. Shoes, in fact, are one of the very earliest human inventions.
But why were shoes invented? An item that was created out of pure necessity has come to mean so much more. Take a look back at why shoes were needed…and why we’ve turned them into something else entirely in the modern age.
The First Shoes
The truth is, no one even knows how old shoes are. Some of the most recent archeological evidence suggests that humans started wearing shoes, or foot coverings, as far back as 40,000 years ago. To put that in perspective, the Roman Empire fell just about 1,500 years ago. The pyramids didn’t even exist 7,000 years ago. So yeah. Shoes have been around for an absurdly long amount of time.
The oldest pair of shoes ever found is about 10,000 years ago. So even if shoes are only this old, they’re still older than writing, the domestication of horses and a huge list of other inventions and innovations.
Shoes just make sense. Your foot is pretty much exactly the same as the feet that ancient humans had 40,000 years ago. And if you’ve ever stepped on a sharp rock with your bare foot, you know exactly why shoes were invented. That first innovator has long been lost to the sands of time, of course, but it’s a natural idea to simply protect one’s feet from rough terrain. Since ancient humans living at this time were largely nomadic people who traveled with seasonable animal herds and vegetation in order to maintain their hunter-gatherer lifestyle, of course they needed shoes.
The oldest pair of shoes ever found, that 10,000-year-old pair discovered in Oregon, was a pair of sandals made with rope. A leather shoe that is 5,500 years old was discovered in Armenia. These shoes were made from one piece of leather and stitched together with more leather.
However, shoes are likely much, much older than this. Bone evidence shoes that human toes began to get smaller and feet began to change as early as 40,000 years ago, which some scientists believe is direct evidence of frequent shoe-wearing.
Ancient Designer Shoes
A skeleton found in eastern Europe that is 27,000 years old was found with small toe bones, probably evidence of shoe-wearing. Even stronger evidence was the remnants of ivory beads around the skeleton’s ankle and foot. These decorative beads very likely graced a pair of shoes and they’re incredibly important. Not only do these little beads represent real evidence of footwear that dates to the earliest days of human history, but they also suggest something more: even back then, shoes were used as a status symbol.
Ivory beads take a lot more time and care to shape than wood or animal bone. Ivory, even then, was likely a valuable commodity. A person who had the wealth to wear ivory beads on their footwear was certainly a person who came from a community with a lot of resources and skilled laborers. The one wearing such beads would clearly have high status within this successful community.
And when you think about it, fancy shoes pretty much are still used to send a similar message to this very day.
The Earliest Types of Shoes
The oldest shoes found by archaeologists is a pair of sandals. To this day, sandal styles are still worn as a popular type of shoe. Sandals were commonly worn by ancients in the classic era, famous people in history like Socrates and Alexander the Great. Sandal fragments were even found in the tomb of King Tut.
Moccasins, however, may be even older than sandals. Fashioned simply from a single piece of leather and held together with leather laces, moccasins were worn widely by ancient people. The flexible but durable leather is highly versatile, allowing for the feet to have protection and freedom of movement. Moccasins protect the feet without compromising flexibility.
Other types of shoes, such as wooden shoes, didn’t appear until the Middle Ages.
Beads, gems, different fabrics, lace and all sorts of embellishments were added to shoes through the ages to denote the wearer’s wealth and status in life. But for most of human history, shoes were made in a practical design. They were made to fit the feet in flat and flexible designs that moved with the wearer’s natural stride. Shoes were decorated but when it came to their basic design, they were practical.
This changed in the 1100s. With the Middle Ages in full flower, footwear started to get…well, silly. Long, pointed toes became a popular style. The longer the toe, the more influential and wealthy the wearer. Those who didn’t have a lot of money couldn’t wear long toes. Something similar happened with shoe width in the 1400s, with the elite wearing quite wide shoes. Those who weren’t elite or wealthy had to wear much more narrow shoes. And yes, they had to. The sumptuary laws in Europe at the time dictated which classes of people could wear what. This meant that if you were a person with little money and little status, you couldn’t wear anything but short-toed, narrow footwear.
About that time is when shoes started to get really, really silly.
High Heels and Other Bad Ideas
Venetian women began wearing shoes with little stilts on the heels that elevated them above others. It was a visual representation of status of the Venetian woman. It was the beginning of the high heeled shoes that would go on to torture feet for the next five centuries…and counting.
High heel shoes styles began to appear in royal courts in Europe, notably in the court of French King Louis XIV. Metal buckles and other embellishments appeared on shoes in the 1600s. These heeled fancy shoes were worn by both men and women.
Shoemakers played with different heel styles and heights, getting more and more creative as new technologies and materials became available. Because heels were a great way to show off footwear embellishments under long skirts, high heels became more commonly worn by women, though heeled boots were still used in military footwear of all types.
Rubber, Sneakers and Shoe Tech
When you hear the word “shoe,” do you automatically picture a sneaker? Athletic shoes, like running shoes and tennis shoes, have dominated the shoe market in recent decades. The latest sneaker styles, the new Michael Jordan shoes, the latest athletic shoes and sports shoes designs get national attention when they’re released. But compared to other types of shoes, sneakers are a new kid on the block.
It all began in 1832, when Wait Webster of New York took out a patent. He had come up with a process to attach rubber soles to shoes. He was the one who pioneered the process, but it was Charles Goodyear who found a way to perfect it. He used heat and sulfur to strengthen rubber soles while making them even more flexible. This is how Charles Goodyear invented vulcanization.
By the 1870s, simple canvas and rubber shoes known as sneakers or sneaks were popular. Rubber companies like Goodrich, U.S. rubber and Hood Rubber sold shoes with names like Keds and PF Flyers. But one little company would change the shoe game for ever.
In 1923, Converse came up with the idea of a signature shoe designed specifically for one sport that was starting to become super popular in the U.S. They spoke with a well-known basketball player and the Chuck Taylor shoes were born. Chuck Taylors became one of the most recognizable and best-selling shoes of all time. Converse would dominate the shoe market with their basketball shoes, though other companies tried to compete. It wasn’t until the 1960s that a little company came along with a brand-new idea and some different shoes: the waffle sole. Originally named Blue Ribbon Sports, the two owners of the company sold basketball shoes out of a van. Later, that company would find some success and be re-named Nike, after the goddess of victory.
As it turns out, they would totally earn the right to bear that name. Nike went on to become of the most famous names in shoes. Today, Nike sells many signature shoes from some of the world’s most well-known people. They’re famous for Air Jordan shoes, which continue to be a bestselling style.
Shoemakers were no longer shoemakers in the 20th century. Now, they were shoe designers. The shoe business boomed in the early 1900s and it hasn’t stopped since. New styles, new colors, new technology, new materials…shoes are continuously evolving and changing. From famous names in shoes like Adidas, Nike, Puma and Dr Martens to innovations like shoelaces and Velcro, shoes keep changing to reflect current fashion trends and fluctuating status symbols.
There are more types of shoes today than what can be counted, because new designers are creating new looks and putting their own spin on truly ancient shoe tech. From boat shoes to combat boots to high heels to everything in-between, there are shoes for every occasion, every activity and every look you want to create.
But it only makes sense that shoes are made with a huge variety of materials in a massive number of styles. After all, people have been working on finding ways to make shoes for the last 40,000 years.
Sole types. Material. Embellishments. Style. There’s so much to know about shoes, anyone could be overwhelmed. The history of shoes stretches almost as far back as human history itself. It’s one of the oldest inventions and it’s still one of the most relevant. So if you still have questions about shoes, no wonder! Get the answer to the most frequently asked questions about shoes and get to know all the information that will help you come across like more of a shoe expert.
Why are shoes called shoes?
The word “shoe” comes from “skokhaz,” a proto-Germanic word. The word has been in use since at least the 1300s. [Source: Etymology Online Dictionary]
What’s up with the Dutch wooden shoes?
Hard wooden clogs have become a distinctive style associated with Dutch culture. The shoes did originate in Holland in the 1300s. The wooden shoes, carved from a single piece of wood and sometimes painted and embellished, became the most common work shoes in Europe. They were commonly worn for hundreds of years and to this day, they’re associated with European folk culture from the past. [Source: LeafTV]
What are the most popular types of shoes?
What’s the most popular type of shoes? The short answer? Sneakers. Even in trying to find the most popular types of shoes, you’re going to find lists of the most popular types of sneakers. The world loves sneakers. They’re everywhere and they’re definitely a huge driving force in the shoe manufacturing and retail market.
Are shoes considered clothing or are they accessories?
Shoes are often an essential part of any outfit but in the grand categorization of fashion, are they clothing or are they accessories?
Shoes often exist in a category all by themselves when it comes to online and retail stores. Sometimes, they’re grouped with clothing and sometimes, they’re grouped with accessories. Shoes don’t fit any specific category other than their own. That means you can group them however you want.
Can shoes be washed in the washing machine?
Shoes get really dirty really easily. After all, they come into contact with all the crap that’s on the ground. And since some shoes are made with materials like canvas, it seems natural that they could be tossed in the washing machine. However, there are a lot of materials you definitely shouldn’t put in there. Leather, suede, vinyl and rubber can’t go in the machine. This is why most shoes have to be hand-washed. Look carefully at the care instructions on shoes to see how they should be washed. [Source: Whirlpool]
How are shoes made?
There are lots of different ways that shoes can be made because there are so many different types of shoes. Leather shoes like moccasin styles, for instance, are made from a single piece of material. Most shoes are made with an upper and a lower. The lower is the sole, which is attached to the upper part of the shoe with stitches or glue, in most cases. Some shoes have an additional insole and some have additional features, such as steel toes. [Source: Wise Geek]
How should shoes fit?
If your shoes don’t fit well, it can create foot pain and even lead to problems. Measure foot length and width to find the right size. Feet can change size over time as your muscles relax and bones shift, so get an up-to-date measurement when you need it. Match measurements to shoe size charts to make sure you get the right size and the right fit for your feet.
What are the shoes with the red soles?
You may have noticed a particular look in high-end women’s shoes: red heels. The super high heels with the red soles that frequently make appearances on stylish TV shows and movies featuring fashionable women are actually all thanks to one particular designer who is famous for red soles: Christian Louboutin. This designer’s signature look is stylish stiletto heels with red soles. Louboutin drew inspiration from the royal court of Louis XIV, who always wore red soles as a visual symbol of his royalty.
Why do shoes smell bad?
How many times have you taken your shoes off at the end of a long day and then peeled damp socks off your feet? Like it or not, feet sweat sometimes inside your shoes. Your skin also sheds dead skin cells. Dirt and bacteria also get in your shoes and sometimes, fungus may start to grow in there. All of this contributes to foot odor.
There are many ways you can eliminate odor in shoes. Try leaving a fresh lemon peel in shoes overnight, or put a few drops of lavender oil or tea tree oil in there to sit overnight. You can also try washing the inside of your shoes if they’re washable. Other natural deodorizers, such as baking soda and cedarwood, also work. [Source: MedicineNet]
- Bellatory – The History of Shoes: Ancient and Early Footwear
- Brittanica – shoe
- LiveScience – First Shoes Worn 40,000 Years Ago
- LovetoKnow – History of Women’s Shoes
- ThoughtCo – The History of Shoes
- The Washington Post – The History of the Sneaker