Woman’s shoe, around 1897
Art,  Art and Design,  English

The Art of the Shoes – A 40.000 year History

The text below is the excerpt of the book The Art of the Shoe (ISBN: 9781783107339), written by Marie-Josèphe Bossan, published by Parkstone International.

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. Conceived for walking, the shoe is an essential everyday object, but its aesthetic qualities can elevate it to the status of art.

The Ottoman Empire

An avid traveller, Jean-Etienne Liotard set sail for Constantinople in 1738. His carefully observed paintings and drawings of the individuals he encountered earned him a reputation as the Enlightenment’s “Turkish painter.” In this portrait of almost photographic detail, the woman’s pattens are accurately depicted being used to protect her from the damp. Note also that the painting depicts the slave without shoes, in contrast to the mistress: the slave must make do with henna-painted feet.

Marriage shoes of wood inlayed with windows of mother of pearl, and metal. Middle East, 19th century
Marriage shoes of wood inlayed with windows of mother of pearl, and metal. Middle East, 19th century.

It was common for women in Turkey and many other oriental countries to wear pattens of variable height inside the bath. Women’s pattens were of wood, inlaid with mother-of-pearl or ivory and covered with silver; the strap was richly embroidered with silver and gold thread. Such pattens carried a comprehensive range of the opulent ornamentation found in these countries. As Jean-Paul Roux rightly emphasizes, the inlaid decoration found on these shoes is quite similar to the decoration found on door and window casements, furniture, and Muslim pulpits.


After the death of Alexander in 323 BC, Iranian culture entered a period of dormancy. The breakdown of the Sassanian and Byzantine empires paved the way for Islam’s takeover.

During the golden age of the Safavid dynasty (1501-1736), Persian still dazzled western travellers. The French painter Chardin (1699-1779), who spent ten years in Persia around 1660, was among those impressed. According to Chardin, even the poor were well dressed and wore silver ornaments on their arms, feet and neck.

Portrait of Fath’ Ali Shah, attributed to Mihv’ Ali Iran, c. 1805, Shoes
Portrait of Fath’ Ali Shah, attributed to Mihv’ Ali Iran, c. 1805, oil on canvas.

Unlike shoes in the Hellenized West, the shoes of oriental countries exhibit a continuity of forms whose decorative grammar was transmitted from one century to the next. For example, 17th- and 19th-century ceremonial boots from Persia display on their soles the same stylized floral motifs found on garments worn by Ashurbanipal in the 7th century BC. The motifs are visible on a narrative relief from Ashurbanipal’s palace entitled, “The King killing a lion,” now in the British Museum.


A great civilization developed in the Indus valley around 2500-2000 BC. Excavations at Harappa (Punjab) and Mohenjodaro (Sindh) have yielded seals contemporary with the Akkadian period of King Sargon’s reign, proof of cultural links between Indian and Sumerian towns well before the Buddhist period. Does this mean the traditional raised tip shoe originated in India? The question remains unanswered. We do know, however, that wearing a raised tip shoe with a pompon became a privilege reserved for the king in both Mesopotamia and India.

Hooked toe shoes. India
Hooked toe shoes. India. Bally Museum, Schönenwerd, Switzerland.

Ancient Indian literature makes frequent reference to shoes, but there is little Indian shoe iconography, perhaps because the lower portions of narrative reliefs, standing sculptures and wall paintings are often deteriorated. Additionally, visual images generally illustrate events taking place in locations where wearing shoes is either prohibited or unnecessary. In India, as in many Asian countries, shoes were not worn inside private homes, palaces, or temples.

Valmiki, the legendary author of the Ramayana, tells how King Rama (one of the incarnations of Visnu in Hindu mythology) was exiled to a forest and had his goldincrusted shoes represent him in his capital. During his three-year absence, the shoes presided in his place. All the decisions delivered by his regent brother were proclaimed before these shoes. A Buddhist variation of the same theme adds an additional detail: when the decisions pronounced before the royal shoes were just, the shoes remained still, but when the decisions broke the law, the shoes rose up in protest.


Surely the most unique aspect of Chinese footwear is the tradition of binding women’s feet. This ancient Chinese practice deserves specific analysis. Foot deformation was invented in an aristocratic milieu. According to a Chinese historian, in 1100 BC, the Empress Ta Ki had clubfoot. She convinced her husband to order the compulsory compression of all little girls’ feet so that they would resemble those of their sovereign, who had become the standard for beauty and elegance.

Five hundred years before Christ, during the era of Confucius (555 BC-479 BC), the beauty of small feet was already being praised as proof of a wellborn status, whereas large feet were synonymous with low birth. Other sources attribute the invention of foot binding to the courtesan Pan Fei, a favorite of Emperor Xiao Bao Kuan (ruled 499-501). Reality was nothing of the sort, although we do owe the expression “golden lotus” to this Emperor.

G. Castiglione. Equestrian Portrait of Emperor Qianlong Passing the Troops in Review, Shoes
G. Castiglione. Equestrian Portrait of Emperor Qianlong Passing the Troops in Review. Gugong Museum, Beijing.

One day, while Pan Fei was dancing over a floor inlaid with gold lotus flowers for the enjoyment of her imperial lover, the ruler cried out in astonishment: “Look, a golden lotus springs up from her every step!” This metaphor has since come to stand for small Chinese feet.

North America

The traditional shoe of the Indians of North America was the moccasin. Moccasins were made out of either one or two pieces of animal skin with a sole attached. The preparation of the skins, tanning, and fabrication of the moccasin was women’s work. Indian women used the skins of buffalo, bighorn sheep, deer, and elk. Buffalo brains were used in the tanning process. Buffalo hides were used to make tepees and the tops and soles of moccasins. Men, women, and children wore identical moccasins.

Sealskin child’s boot. Groënland, 19th century, Shoes
Sealskin child’s boot. Groënland, 19th century. International Shoe Museum, Romans.

Spanish explorers at the end of the 15th-century introduced glass beads to America; the blue variety came from Venice. Trappers used beads as money and a bead trade with the Europeans began in the 17th-century. Plains Indians gradually abandoned porcupine quill embroidery at different periods depending on the tribe. Indians first used beads around 1840. Their limited colours restricted ornamentation to simple geometric patterns…

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