5 contemporary shoes with history behind them

Discover the origin of ballet shoes, clear sandals, and Converse sneakers.

Shutterstock I Kaspars Grinvalds

We use them every day, but we hardly ever ask ourselves, “Where did they come from? How much work went into designing them? What mark do we leave when we wear them?” Throughout a good part of history, women’s shoes have remained “in the dark,” hidden under a labyrinth of petticoats or clouds of crinoline, but despite being one of the most hidden parts of a woman’s attire, ironically they were—and continue to be—one of the most controversial.

1. Ballet shoes

Ballet shoes (although not the model we know today) have been used both by men and women from approximately the 16th Century onwards. But when Catherine de’ Medici used high heels for her wedding (one of the first women to do so, as up to then, high heels were exclusively for gentlemen), flat slippers lost a bit of their charm.

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Later, when Queen Marie Antoinette of France was carried away to the guillotine in her high heels, flat shoes recovered their former glory. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until 1947 that Rosa Repetto (of the now famous brand of dance attire) created a pair of ballet shoes for her son Roland that were light and flexible, and specially designed for dancing, which caused an uproar in the dance industry in Paris—and on Brigitte Bardot.

The actress—who was also a ballerina—asked Mrs. Repetto to create a comfortable and elegant version of the ballet slipper for her everyday use and for filming the movie And God Created Woman (1956). These ballet shoes immediately became a fashion trend that has lasted until today, above all because another great actress and fashion icon, Audrey Hepburn, also wore a pair of them in her movie Funny Face (1957), establishing a standard of elegant, timeless comfort.

2. Mules

Mules are the footwear par excellence of spring 2017, but they have hundreds of years of history; they have even been used by Popes, members of royalty, and the most sought-after actresses in Hollywood.

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Although some historians assure that their name dates from the 16th Century, taken from shoes worn by the three highest magistrates of Ancient Rome, called mulleus calceus, others attribute the name to the fact that in French, “mule” refers to slip-on style slippers.

From the beginning, in fact, this kind of footwear was only intended to be used in the intimacy of the home by the wealthiest classes. It was the Comtesse d’Olonne who took the risk of using a pair of red mules to go to Mass in 1694 and caused such a stir that this shoe immediately became a fad in the French court. Queen Marie Antoinette herself was one of these shoes’ greatest fans in the 18th century.

Then, for a long time they were associated with women of ill repute, and it was Marilyn Monroe who brought them back in the 20th Century, followed by other actors of Hollywood’s golden age. This year, they are a huge trend and several brands are offering them both with and without heels.

3. Converse sneakers

The Converse company as such began in 1908, but at first it only dedicated itself to manufacturing rubber shoes. A few years later, recognizing the the growing popularity of basketball and the need to expand its business, it decided to create its first All Star shoe model, which debuted in 1917, exclusively designed for practicing that sport. The upper was like that of a boot and was manufactured out of sturdy tan canvas with dark brown rubber soles.

Sales were a bit slow at first, until they acquired their first “ambassador”: basketball player Chuck Taylor, who helped not only to promote the shoes, but also to improve their design. For this reason, years later his name was added to the logo as a sign of appreciation and respect.

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How did they end up being popular outside of the world of sports? Mainly, when they added more colors, the Oxford-style low cut model was created, and performers such as James Dean, Elvis and the Beach Boys started to use them in the ’50s for their shows. This infused them with an interesting cultural association of rebellion and individuality, making them a shoe that adolescents, above all, wanted to own. This was intensified in the ’80s and ’90s with rock singers such as Kurt Cobain.

4. Clear sandals

Kim Kardashian might have brought them back, but their origin goes back to the post-war era. When World War II ended, European women were looking for ways to indulge after a time of limitations. Christian Dior and Salvatore Ferragamo were two of the designers who made many of their dreams a reality.

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Ferragamo sandals

In the case of the Italian designer, he set himself the goal of creating a shoe that wasn’t 100 percent leather, since most leather had been used up to make soldiers’ boots. One day, on the banks of the Arno river in Florence, he saw the nylon string that fishermen were using, and it occurred to him that it could be used to create a transparent instep, bringing the strips from one side to the other. In addition, he wanted to create the illusion of a transparent shoe, carving out the wooden wedge heel so that it would seem that the foot was floating.

Nonetheless, his sandals did not sell well. Some attributed this to the fact that women felt very exposed while wearing them; others, to their high price. Perhaps they were simply too far ahead of their time.

5. Platform espadrilles

Also called platform sandals, these are summer shoes par excellence. The flat model has been around for centuries, during which they were used by farm workers, warriors and Mediterranean fishermen, principally in Spain.

But espadrilles did not become a fashion item until the beginning of the ’70s, when Yves Saint Laurent met with Isabel Castañer (of the now-famous Spanish shoe manufacturer) at a Paris fair to ask her if she could make him a pair, but with high heels. (The Castañer family business had been making espadrilles since 1776, but they were at the point of bankruptcy because people thought they were only “shoes for country folk.”)

The new concept was a complete success, and right away other famous designers asked Castañer to manufacture their models, thus saving their company and recovering the social and commercial use of sandals.

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Adriana Bello
Adriana Bello

Adriana is the editor-in-chief of a fashion and lifestyle magazine in Venezuela. She believes elegance is a matter of good taste, not money. Her fashion icon is Coco Chanel but most of the time she feels like Bridget Jones.

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