Footprints of History: Giorgio Riello and Peter McNeil Find Shoes a Fascinating Key to Social Mores, and Discuss What Choice and Design of Footwear Can Tell Us about Morality, Mobility and Sexuality in Europe over the Centuries

Article excerpt

SHOES, LIKE OTHER OBJECTS, can illuminate specific aspects of the past. Through their survival, and material appearance--their texture, weight and design, they can convey abstract historical concepts, and also by their human associations and suggestions of physicality. For example, consider the images of the piles of shoes belonging to the millions of Jews killed in concentration camps. How powerfully the humble mismatched shoes stand for the presence of persons whose dignity and humanity have been erased. But a shoe produced and worn at a specific time also embodies the values, ideals and aesthetic choices of an era. Shoes can tell us a lot about an individual, but they also convey messages that are understood across society: high heels stand for an exaggerated femininity; red shoes for pleasure and desire; and sneakers for modern pace in the city, leisure and relaxation. The story of shoes in the longue duree is characterized by themes of morality, mobility and extremism as we shall see.

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The shape, colours and design of footwear has always been influenced by the difference between the genders, and in turn the desires, ambitions and sensual signals of men and women. Even if the foot is the least gendered part of the body, men's shoes are still immediately recognizable from women's. This is not because of functional dissimilarities or anatomical diversities between the sexes, but because shoes are one way by which we construct gender identity. Shoes can tell us a lot about the place of a man or a woman within society and the physical space that they inhabit. But as the roles of the two sexes have changed over time, so have shoes and their use in highlighting distinctions and divisions in society.

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Costume historians have noted that from the fourteenth century men and women's dress began to look substantially different. In this period, the tunic-like shapes of early medieval clothes previously worn by both genders gave way to different aesthetic forms of the clothed body for men and women. Men started wearing hose, revealing the shape of their legs and the size of their calves and underlying their virility. In contrast, women started wearing long skirts entirely covering their legs and feet. This 'great gender distinction' in attire was accompanied by, and to a great deal influenced, the emergence of fashion in Europe. Both sexes started using their clothes as indicators of social status. One's position in society no longer depended on birth, but on the way one looked. And as new money from trade and banking allowed for increased expenditure on clothing, a rich merchant's wife could look as magnificent as a princess.

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The use of clothing to express aspirations, to look smart, and gain acceptance among particular social groups seems a perfectly innocent practice today. However this was not the case in the Middle Ages when both church and state were actively interested in preserving distinctions and divisions within society. This was done through the sumptuary laws--laws that established who was entitled to wear what. If a noble lady could wear gold trimmings, the wife of a merchant would rank lower in material expectations and could wear only silver trimmings. The wife of an artisan could not expect to wear any trimmings at all.

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However, this was a vision of a static society that was more an idea than a reality. Historians are not sure how widespread the enforcement of sumptuary laws was and how frequently they were challenged. One of the items of apparel that was most discussed (and banned) in sumptuary laws across Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was a type of footwear, worn mostly by women but sometimes also by men, known as pianella. Pianelle varied considerably in size, but were characterized by thick soles which could be up to twenty inches high. …