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The Art of the Shoe

“You never truly know someone until you have walked a mile in his shoes.” — Anonymous

Aside from noticing a shoe for its comfort or elegance, contemporaries rarely take interest in this necessary object of daily life. However, the shoe is considerable in the history of civilization and art. In losing contact with nature, we have lost sight of the shoe’s profound significance. In recapturing this contact, in particular through sports, we begin its rediscovery.

Man’s shoe in black distressed leather
Man’s shoe in black distressed leather upturned pointed toe, studded soul, claw heel. Persia, 15th-16th century. International Shoe Museum, Romans

Shoes for skiing, hiking, hunting, football, tennis or horse-riding are carefully chosen, indispensable tools as well as revealing signs of occupation or taste. In previous centuries, when people depended more on the climate, vegetation and condition of the soil, while most jobs involved physical labor, the shoe held an importance for everyone which today it holds for very few. We do not wear the same shoes in snow as in the tropics, in the forest as in the steppe, in the swamps as in the mountains or when working, hunting or fishing.

Woman’s shoe in damask embroidered
Woman’s shoe in damask embroidered with threads of gold and silver. Louis XIV period, 17th century International Shoe Museum, Romans.
Deposit of the Musée National du Moyen Age, Thermes de Cluny, Paris.

For this reason, shoes give precious indications of habitats and modes of life. In strongly hierarchical societies, organized by castes or orders, clothing was determinant. Princesses, bourgeoisie, soldiers, clergy and servants were differentiated by what they wore. The shoe revealed, less spectacularly than the hat, but in a more demanding way, the respective brilliance of civilizations, unveiling the social classes and the subtlety of the race; a sign of recognition, just as the ring slips only on to the most slender finger, the “glass slipper” will not fit but the most delicate of beauties.

Oxford style man’s shoe
Oxford style man’s shoe by A. Biset in light brown kidskin. France, c. 1890
International Shoe Museum, Romans.

The shoe transmits its message to us by the customs which impose and condition it. It teaches us of the deformations that were forced on the feet of Chinese women and shows us how in India, by conserving the unusual boots, the nomadic horsemen of the North attained their sovereignty over the Indian continent; we learn that ice-skates evoke the Hammans while babouches suggest the Islamic interdiction to enter holy places with covered feet.

Shoes of Zoya
Shoes of Zoya. Pumps in beige kidskin, heel and buckle in amber Russia, around 1920-1925. The heels are exceptional and highly representative of the country’s resources. Zoya played the piano in the concert circle.

Sometimes the shoe is symbolic, evoked in ritual or tied to a crucial moment of existence. One tells of the purpose high-heels served: to make the woman taller on her wedding night in order to remind her that it is the only moment when she will dominate her husband. The boots of the Shaman were decorated with animal skins and bones in order to emulate the stag; as the stag, he could run in the world of spirits.

Evening shoes in navy blue velvet, steel bead design,
Evening shoes in navy blue velvet, steel bead design, celluloid heel inlayed with strass Created by shoemaker Hellstern, c. 1925. International Shoe Museum, Romans.

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