History of Shoes: Medieval Footwear

February 25, 2013

in History Of Shoes

The Middle Ages (5th-15th century) was an important era in European history. Over time, advances were made in all aspects of life, from agriculture to technology, and even fashion. Though footwear in particular had existed prior to this era, it reached new levels of innovation during Medieval times.

Even though shoes have come a long way since then, there are many designer shoes such as those by Kate Spade and Steve Madden that are inspired by the Middle Ages yet have modern-day twists.

Back then, bright and ornately-embroidered gowns similar to the ones worn in the iconic Arthurian era movie, The Mists of Avalon, were only in vogue with the upper class. Visual cues, such as the color and texture of clothing, usually indicated a woman’s place in society. The same was true for her shoes: the pointier the toe, the more important the woman was.

Though upper-class ladies had the financial freedom to express themselves through their clothing, their styles ultimately proved restrictive, as the long gowns and uncomfortable shoes hampered easy movement. However, those who could afford it had “turned shoes” made. This footwear had been sewn inside out before being turned around the right way. This technique made shoes stronger and more durable. Men also wore this style of shoe, which was known as the crakow. In fact, the point (which was also called the “poulaine”) was even more extravagantly and exaggeratedly pointed on men’s shoes. This type of footwear reached the height of its popularity in the late 14th century.

Poulaine Shoes

So where did people get these shoes? Royalty and other wealthy people visited a cordwainer. These luxury shoemakers belonged to trade guilds and tended to settle in together in a larger city. They crafted shoes out of a variety of materials, specifically tailoring the size to the customer’s feet. Clergy and royalty wore expensive shoes made from leather or dyed wool. During times of battle, knights wore armored shoes, but in peaceful times, they preferred comfortable shoes made from wool or leather, or sometimes even fur boots.

Cordwainer's Tool Kit

Peasants and other commoners relied on cobblers, who were itinerant workers traveling to various manors and villages, taking on whatever work they could find. However, if commoners could not afford a cobbler’s shoes, they often had to improvise by wrapping their feet with scraps of cloth like large bandages.

When commoners did buy shoes, they were made with naturally-colored gray or brown wool, as they didn’t have the means to indulge in expensive dyes. Their shoes tended to be functional and sturdy – boots were a popular choice, especially with peasants who worked outside. These work shoes were often roughly constructed of durable fabrics like leather or wood so they would last a long time. This practical footwear was paired with loose tunics and woolen trousers – all told, these were more comfortable outfits than those worn by the upper classes, but obviously lacked style or any form of self-expression.

Times have changed in innumerable ways since the Middle Ages, but some fashion trends have remained very much the same. The pointed silhouette that declaimed class and status in shoes worn by upper-class women is still echoed in the lines of sleek, chic ankle boots. The subtle point of the Nikita Ankle Boot 1 by Ash Shoes, combined with its lux black suede fabric, makes this shoe fit for a modern-day queen. Likewise, the sturdy materials used to craft shoes worn by the lower class have evolved into the high-quality leather found in boots like Steve Madden’s Battell Lace-Up Boot 2 in Cognac Leather and the Stuart Weitzman 5050 3 Black Leather over-the-knee boots.

Unlike the people of the Middle Ages, when it comes to shoes, we have the freedom to buy shoes that are both practical and stylish regardless of “status” or class.

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