What do we think of when we hear the word “footwear”? It’s pretty vague nowadays, covering all types of shoes, sandals, and boots. What we now take advantage of as fashion statements and forms of self-expression has a long history of leather soles primarily being used for hunting. Status symbols gradually evolved into more similar styles to what we see today. During the prehistoric ages, humans from different parts of the world began binding their feet using deerskin and bearskin soles and padding the “soles” with fur and straw for warmth. These usually took on the shape of what we now know as moccasins. In warmer climates, a sandal-style structure was used with less insulation to keep the feet protected and prevent injury. With the earliest forms of footwear dating back 40,000 years and playing different roles in society, status and function, it’s certainly worth a little research into. The world of footwear is interesting and the media, pop culture, and technological advances have highly influenced how we got to where we are today. We’ve taken a look at some main stages in the evolution of footwear starting in the prehistoric age, starting at the very beginning and taking you up to today’s philosophies.
Sneakers, sandals, boots, and everything in between all have humble beginnings in prehistoric times, but it’s in the Middle Ages when people began to switch things up with sequins and materials. Society norms, expectations, and roles have dramatically changed through history and individual sense of fashion and style is something which is celebrated in modern America. People are exploring different ways to express themselves, and footwear is an essential piece of the puzzle in that journey. Music, culture, and politics all play roles in how a person thinks and feels as a member of society. The Dr Marten revolution took youths of the 80s by storm and helped contribute to defining grunge for decades to come. As more and more people become concerned about the environment, the future of footwear is unclear and careful steps must be taken in the right direction. More environmentally conscious choices suggest progress, and exciting developments are outlined in order to pique the interest of the younger generation and a new market.
Table of Contents
The History Of Footwear
As with many historical turning points, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly who decided to start protecting their feet and where it first happened. What we do know is that footwear dates back to the prehistoric age. It’s unclear when prehistoric humans first began to make forms of footwear and exact reasons why, but archaeological evidence shows that function was the focus and the Innovative early shoes began. The history of footwear can be divided into three main world history eras.
Early humans began to protect their feet from the elements during prehistoric times, perhaps due to the excessive wear and tear their feet were enduring through hunting and primarily trying to survive. It’s important not to overlook the first forms of footwear because the innovation of these people shaped the way for future millennia. The shoe’s humble beginnings served multiple functions. Styles were adjusted to suit the wearer’s climatic zone and weather conditions. You can see here images of shoe prototypes and how they are not unlike the rough shape and style of shoe we see today. The ingenuity demonstrated is definitely a monumental milestone in the history of footwear. It’s unclear if the first versions of shoes were for warmer or colder climates, so it’s impossible to know which versions of footwear are adaptations and which are the original concept. A multifunctional foot-covering simply came into light and others mimicked the idea until different versions existed, and every prehistoric human was sporting the latest shoes.
Fast-forward a few years and politics, culture, and social roles play a role in types of footwear and who gets to wear what. This age was when societies started to come into their own and began using different styles and colors of footwear as status symbols and were highly influential in the early perception of authority, power, and also beauty. Across the globe, standards for beauty are very different even today. This is completely natural, as everyone is unique and no one person can be perceived as desirable by all. However, there are some examples in history which might be considered extreme. The lengths women and girls went through in order to be considered beautiful makes us question some of our own ideas and traditions.
1250 BC to 450 BC saw the development of different versions of shoes, boots, and sandals. Cultural differences saw China popularize “golden lotus feet” which is breaking toes, twisting, and tightly binding girls’ feet so that they remain small and fit into special shoes. The traditional shoes have a pointed, narrow shape and are usually decorated with hand-painted designs. Here we can see beauty standards being explored and across the Eastern world, small feet were a sign of beauty and were set as an ideal for women. Women who had their feet bound were seen higher in society and highly desirable. It wasn’t until 1912 that foot binding was made illegal, although some continued binding in secret, with dancers binding their feet in the 19th and 20th centuries. Infections were rife, not to mention long-term effects on women’s walking styles and physical growth. Put simply, there is no point in trying to fit a certain mold. Footwear should be available in lots of sizes and shapes, and we are now able to explore that, which is exciting.
Across the globe, ancient Egyptians had developed a more structured form of sandal using palm leaves, papyrus fiber, and raw leather to create a wrap around the feet. Footprints left in the sand were used as a mold, and braided papyrus created a sole. Early evidence suggests that for a while these were exclusively worn by higher members of society. However, as time passed and different colored sandals were brought into light as well as gaining popularity, it was no longer just pharaohs and clerics, but everyone in Ancient Egypt was soon wearing sandals. As rawhide was introduced and Egyptians learned to tan hide, sandals were more common and widely available, with specifically made soles for each foot! High-born Egyptian women wore sandals adorned with jewels and precious metals. A rawhide makeshift leather formed lace during later developments. However, the basic concept for flip-flops and sandals remains largely the same as it was back then. The ancient Egyptians wasted no time with getting things done and solving problems. Mummies have even been found in some pyramids, with evidence of boots used by esteemed pharaohs. The reasons why are somewhat unclear because the heat and sand would have been perfect conditions for sandals. Perhaps they were another status symbol?
Ancient Greek sandals were built on the idea that footwear can be used as a status symbol and serve as a visual reminder of a person’s rank. Sandals were worn exclusively by free citizens in Greece so that they were easily distinguishable from slaves. Tougher leather strips wrapped around the foot, ankle, and sometimes climbing to the calf with the excess tied as a lace. We’ve all seen gladiator sandals in the movies and Halloween costumes, think of the tan you’d get in those! In Rome, the thinner the sole and more laces a person’s sandals had winding up their leg, the higher the soldier was ranking. Ancient civilizations were surprisingly advanced and genuinely ahead of their times.
Early Celts made slip-on shoes from wood and weaved fabrics and any materials that were available. This is a little different from the sandals we’ve seen before because Celts traditionally settled in northern territories of Europe, so they likely needed something warmer. Although it’s interesting that they opted not to use leather or rawhide. Wood can’t have been comfortable, leather was a lot more moldable and hard-wearing. There is evidence that towards the Middle Ages Celts used sheepskin to line a sandal-style shoe which wrapped around the ankle to secure. Sandals were used by the Celts during the warmer months.
The Middle Ages
Footwear fast became a status symbol, with different styles illustrating a person’s function in society, ranking, and class during the Middle Ages. Canvas Espadrilles became popular from the Pyrenees due to their lightness and ease of movement in warmer climates. Northern Europe, who didn’t see the boom in this style, began wearing leather boots lined with fur which were sewn from an inside seam. This concept made the boots more durable and weather resistant. More about the evolution of boots can be found here.
As fashion became more daring and outrageous, as did shoes; men began wearing wooden heels on the soles of their shoes and women experimented with fabrics, silks, and even velvet. Pointed toe shapes were very popular, as were high boots laced halfway up the leg. During the gothic period, people continued experimenting with unusual shoe shapes, textures and designs. Pointed toes were extended dramatically, some were so large that an extra strap needed to be incorporated to allow easier movement.
Different views of culture, art, and economic factors played a vital role in the materials of people’s wardrobes. Adapting to fashion trends is certainly not a recent thing and has been happening historically through the ages. Different groups of people have always been challenging the norms and expectations placed on them through style choices and expressing themselves. It is only recently, however, that this type of practice and expressionism is celebrated rather than shunned.
Particularly during the Victorian era, men and women were expected to dress in a certain way and behave how they were expected to behave. Slightly heeled boots were common for women to wear walking because it was all about being seen and how you are viewed in society. Interestingly, there is little evidence in the history of people wearing what they chose to wear. Maybe this is because punishment and fear of punishment were rife, and self-expression was not much of an option during the time.
Moving forward in the timeline, this article is going to delve into the influence of pop culture in the western world and the effects that changing gender roles and the introduction of technology providing mass media spread had on the youth of America. Whole generations have grown up with more access and exposure to technology than some would have never thought possible. A drawback of this is that we now live in a consumer society where fast fashion is rife and everything is so easily accessible that it’s almost too easy to purchase things.
The Types Of Different Footwear
Originating in the 16th century, sneakers were traditionally designed for ease of movement during sport. Tennis shoes were the foundation of this and are now designed for comfort and casual wear. The lightweight properties of tennis shoes combined with the style of basketball shoes form the sneakers we see today. Cheaper synthetic materials and mass production allowed vibrant colors and designs to come to light. Although in western cultures sneakers were typically worn by men, boys, and athletes, during the move into the 21st century all genders have delved into this new style. High tops have evolved from the basketball style into their own chunky, wide-set skater-style sneaker. These are usually brightly colored and on the pricier side. Collectibles are often high tops.
Boots are typically a chunkier build, covering the ankle as well as providing protection for the foot and toes. Nowadays, we have different kinds of boots which serve different functions. Steel-toe boots are usually worn during manual work, ankle boots are a casual fall style, and waterproof boots are specifically designed using rubber to keep the feet dry in the rain. Boots are a million-dollar industry, with more versions for different functions than you can think of. Horse riders have their own category when shopping, as do walkers. We will talk about the power that a Dr Marten boot had over a generation soon. Historically, women wore boots with frilly socks showing for function and a touch of sophistication. There is a boot for every need now and endless possibilities. More about different types of footwear is available here.
20th Century & Footwear
As the film industry boomed during the 20th century, Hollywood actors held massive influence on viewers’ style choices and footwear popularity. There was an enormous boom in American pop culture and the presentation of how ladies and gentlemen were perceived completely changed. Mary Jane schoolgirl shoes with a strap over the front of the foot boomed, as did sports shoes. The kitten heel, which is a regular pointed ladies’ shoe with a very small heel, became hugely popular thanks to Aubrey Hepburn’s influence. Little did she know, Hepburn acted as a starting point for the mass rollout of the media and seemingly limitless exposure to a consumerist society. Marylin Munroe also massively affected the clothing industry by pressuring designers to use realistically proportioned models and showing clothes and shoes being used for function rather than show.
Following the end of the second world war, as gender stereotypes were challenged and more women moved into the workplace, there became an increasing market for fashion trends and feminine style which is suitable for professional lifestyles. More on this can be found here. People became bolder in their looks and began experimenting, pushing the boundaries and exploring themselves as well as celebrating individuality. Unique styles were developing with fashion trends towards the end of the last century. People were becoming braver and more experimental as time went on. During the hippie era of the 1960s, front lace granny boots became an essential part of the look. Although some might argue that hippies would typically wear sandals or in true earthy fashion, Boots continued to grow in popularity during the following decades, particularly for young people.
21st Century & Footwear
Moving into the present day, we’re able to follow fashion trends and find different footwear styles, based on our style and mood. From grunge, rock-and-roll, hippy, people want to be seen and the way in which they express themselves is bold and exciting. The youth of today are the ones to look to for up-and-coming trends. Although they tend to be reverting to 80s baggy jeans with flannels, Converses and Dr Marten chunky boots have always been big among young adults. Dungarees are also on the rise and comfort seems to be key. The fact that today’s youth are developing their own sense of style and the ability to express themselves is something which should be celebrated and encouraged. Maybe this is because more and more people are rewatching old shows out of comfort, and they want to feel part of it. Or they’re just focusing on comfort and how confident they feel.
Subcultures & Footwear
The iconic Converse all star shape which goes to the ankle was originally designed with basketball players in mind, because Chuck Taylor was an avid fan. However, rock bands gained popularity for the iconic shoe because, in the words of Tommy Ramone, they were “cheap shoes” so they wore them, not to mention their durability. Chuck Taylors soon became a part of the grunge aesthetic during the 80s. Frontman of the iconic band Nirvana, known for their edgy look and existential music, Kurt Cobain even died in a pair of Converses. Music has huge influence over the youth and will always have the power to set trends and make people feel part of a group, or something bigger than themselves. People wearing Converses recognize one another as feel like they are connected in something. Trends like this are known as subcultures because of how widespread it has become and the power it has to make people feel like they belong. More about this can be found here.
Individuals who want to express themselves in bold ways may portray themselves as punk. Dr Marten (DM) boots have been an important part of that subculture and although the boots were originally designed for workers, they have been adopted by young people and made a part of their everyday style. Bulky ankle boots with eyelets and an overall industrial look add to the overall look that grunge strives for. The 60s saw iconic cherry red DMs which then became a symbol of angst, anti-establishment, and grunge. Young people cutting up their clothes, putting pins through their earlobes, and wearing high DM boots laced up with brightly colored laces. Goths and punks rule this era, and the experimental style paired with existential music of the mid-1980s formed grunge.
DMs entered the mainstream in the 1990s with Marc Jacobs to thank. Since then, the statement boots have been a part of youth culture and show no sign of slowing down. You walk down the street, and you will see Converse, vans, and DMs being worn alike, people like them because of their durability. Put simply, today’s youth are changing, and we seem to be too. Stereotypes are being challenged and affordable, comfortable shoes are worn by all regardless of what group, if any, they belong to.
Of course, there are anomalies to what was just said and contradictions. There always are. For example, Yeezy sneakers, made big by Kanye West, are enormously popular and considered widely trendy. They are, however, on the pricier side and tend to be focused on an elite market that can afford them, rather than appealing to the public with affordable sneakers. This is definitely an anomaly to the trend because the Yeezy brand is portrayed as ideal to strive towards, but they’re a pretty expensive pair of sneakers when you get some Converse for less than half the price! There will always be exceptions to the status quo, and it’s great that everyone has their own opinions.
The Future Of Footwear
People are becoming more and more aware of how climate change affects their style choices and are trying to make more sustainable choices by purchasing statement pieces that last a long time and can be worn in multiple ways. Sustainability and sportswear are a growing influence in the footwear industry. People no longer want a pair of shoes for a specific occasion or a cheap pair of sneakers that aren’t likely to last. It’s fair to say the excitement of having cheap, synthetic materials readily available is starting to wear off. Consumers are generally making more conscious purchases, with many buying secondhand. This means that it could be likely that trends are soon to be a thing of the past, with people expressing themselves how they like and not really dressing to be part of any specific group.
So many brands claim to be sustainable, eco-friendly, and even carbon-neutral. But what does any of that really mean? Footwear made from recycled materials is certainly a step in the right direction. Fewer people are paying attention to trends because fast fashion is losing popularity. With access to anything we want via the internet, consumers are concerned about where clothing items and footwear comes from, how ethically it was produced, and how far it has been shipped. These are all things that we can focus on in order to provide more clarity about product sourcing. It’s unclear how transparent companies are being about their environmental services and whether they are giving back as much as they take. The future remains unclear, but there is hope.
Sustainable footwear is typically defined as when the design, development, manufacture, distribution, and selling of footwear minimizes negative environmental impacts, conserves energy and natural resources. An example of this is Dr Martens using a vegan leather alternative made out of a polyurethane blend, which is less toxic to produce than PVC. There are also added benefits to sustainable alternatives, including less space needed for farming, many factories have regulations specifying vent conditions, and emission control. Policies like these are the way forward because it is simply not an option anymore to carry on in the way we have been. We live in a fast-moving society where anything we want is available in an instant. Changes are being made and consumers are becoming more aware.
Water is another factor that needs to be considered when looking for sustainable footwear. Similar to fast fashion brands, consumers are pressuring big brands to make changes in order to use less water per item. 1.5 trillion tons of water are used by the fashion industry in a year. This is ineffective and unsustainable because the world is currently suffering a water crisis. As a consumer, this seems intimidating, but there is little we can do apart from continuing to pressure brands to make changes for a better future.
Footwear is changing to cater to the modern audience. Pop culture creates ideals that are now achievable. Nike has created a sneaker that acts as a fidget toy because you can peel layers off to reveal brightly colored patches underneath the white cover. Vans have developed a sneaker that changes color when the sun shines on it. Brands are adapting to keep audiences interested, and it’s exciting to see what they come up with next to push boundaries. Stay tuned for the hovering boots!
To conclude, footwear has a rich history and has played a role in society since the Middle Ages. Strict rules were followed in ancient times about the function of the shoes someone was wearing, color, and style. The symbolic nature of footwear continues to the modern-day with brands such as Converse and Dr Marten boots acting as a uniform for entire generations of grunge-inspired teens and young people. The introduction of pop culture in America produced widespread style changes and functions of footwear began to adapt with fashion. In the future, we are going to see people wearing more sustainable, durable footwear which is functional and kind for the environment. Style choices are currently inspired by the 80s and 90s and do not seem to be slowing down.
Monkey see monkey do. We are products of our environment and take cues from it, like how to act, interpret others, and be interpreted by others. Soon after every household in America had a TV installed, teens began to romanticize life and want to dance. Babies learn to speak by being in a talking environment and mimicking those around them, that’s what babbling is. The talk and tone without the words. This is why today’s youth are products of their environment which is primarily the media; TV, film, and the big one- the internet. They have the power to decide as a population that something is cool or not cool anymore. Teens have started wearing rubber Crocs as casual shoes, which were once considered uncool. Young people saw the edgy rocks bands who appear to be shunned by society performing on the TV and want to be like them. They want to feel part of something that isn’t quite the adult world. So, they dress up like them and act like them in order to feel like them and, ultimately, be them. It’s part of growing up, trying on different shoes to see which fits.
The youth of today are not unique. There is the same angst that was there centuries ago, it was simply shunned throughout history, whereas the media portrays them as quirky outsiders who are misunderstood. Through wearing this “uniform” of cherry red Dr Martens, chunky boots, or even Converse, they are able to express themselves while conforming to societal norms. They say you can tell a lot about a person by the shoes they wear. Maybe it is a symbol of who they are, or maybe they’re just some comfortable, perfectly worn-in shoes. Hopefully, this has been a helpful guide, and you have been educated on the significance that footwear can have. Maybe next time you see someone sporting a pair of chunky DM boots, try giving them a kind smile to show them that you understand.