Assessment · Updates

Function and Purpose of Footwear (& how it’s changed over the centuries)

Imagine showing up to a job interview. Got it? Feeling the fear and palm sweat set in? Great. Now picture your outfit. You’re wearing your best suit or your most professional blouse/pencil skirt combo. You’ve applied your makeup perfectly. (or not, if that’s not your thing. but you’ve washed your face) There are no cat hairs on your pants. On your feet – oh wait. There’s no shoes! You haven’t forgotten them, this isn’t a fever dream, you’ve actively chosen not to wear shoes.Why? Well, we’ll get into that.

Shoes are as much about protection as they are about social, economic, and personal expression. In our example, your potential employer would likely assume certain things about you: you can’t afford shoes, you’re a hippie, you don’t care about personal grooming, you’re just plain weird; that kind of thing. The lack of shoes in our culture tends to raise questions for people in power (your potential employer in this case) about whether you’re capable of doing the job they want to hire you for. Questions like: Can you fit in with the office culture and other people who work there? Can you be expected to uphold basic social conventions? If you don’t wear shoes to a job interview, can you reasonably be expected to, for example, not steal other employee’s lunches from the communal fridge? I’m dramatising here, but you understand the point I’m making.

Most shopping centres here in Australia have signs that say ‘No shirt, no shoes, no service,’ mainly because it’s a social expectation that you are fully clothed at all times in public spaces (and that includes shoes).

In some cultures, particularly in South-East-Asia and some Pacific Island nations, as well as in the Middle East, it is considered highly offensive to display the sole of one’s foot, as it’s considered to be the lowest part of a person’s body, always in contact with the ground (Lakoff,R T & Ideinto, S, 2005). Conversely, in many tribal cultures, and native people groups, shoes aren’t expected at all, and are only worn when mixing with westerners.

Socially, in most western countries, women are expected not only to wear shoes, but a specific kind: high heels. They have to do this in order conform to the standards of feminine beauty placed upon them both by their peers and by those women who have gone before them. In many fields of office work , women are expected to wear heels at all times – a concept that’s been parodied in many a film, notably The Devil Wears Prada, where women scurry around changing their shoes from their comfy sneakers or clogs to sky-high stilettos when Miranda Priestley comes a’knocking. One only has to sit on a train at peak hour in any major city and notice the many perfectly made-up, well-dressed women wearing scuffed running shoes with a pair of fancy, well-maintained heels poking out of their respective handbags. You can’t walk 3 blocks in stilettos! Not without serious calf muscle training, anyway!

A case came out last year where an English woman was threatened with termination of her contract , and was subsequently sent home without pay because she refused to wear a shoe with a “2in to 4in heel” (BBC, 2016) for a 9 hour shift of walking clients to conference rooms. The company in question, after the woman went public with this issue, stated that it was “common practice within the service sector to have appearance guidelines” (BBC 2016) and that “These policies ensure customer-facing staff are consistently well presented and positively represent a client’s brand and image.” (BBC, 2016).

While at some basic level we all wear shoes to protect our feet, one cannot reasonably make the argument that a stiletto heel is designed with only that in mind. Many studies have proven over the years that high heels in fact damage the feet of those who wear them, causing permanent damage to bones, muscles and tendons in the feet, legs, and even into the spine. So why do we still wear them?

From a young age, girls are expected to wear high heels to formal events, whether they be birthday parties, weddings or school formals. If they refuse, and buck the social pressure, depending on the group they are within, they can be ostracised, teased, even bullied for being different. Even if that’s not the case, and the girl’s peer group doesn’t really care what she wears, she might still feel isolated or weak or wrong for finding the pain of high heels to much to bear. This can have a profound psychological impact on this hypothetical girl’s development. Feeling wrong or weird for not being able to do something other people can is up there with the hardest things teenagers deal with from an identity perspective.

We as a species have been wearing shoes for far longer than recorded history allows us to be certain. There are cave drawings found in Spain dating back more than 15,000 years that depict humans wearing animal skins tied to their feet. The oldest physical shoes that have been preserved and studied were found with ‘Ötzi the Iceman’, naturally preserved by the cold temperatures of the Alps, where he was found, and carbon dating suggests they are over 5000 years old. These shoes were simply foot coverings to protect the wearer’s feet from extreme temperatures and rough ground and stones. This purpose lines up with the Macquarie Dictionary’s definition of a shoe as “an external covering, usually of leather, for the human foot, consisting of a more or less stiff or heavy sole and a lighter upper part” (Macquarie Dictionary, 1991) It makes sense, logically, that the feet, one of the most sensitive areas of the human body, would need to be covered in order to allow people to go around and do their everyday business. Shoes were initially made purely for protection against the harshness of the physical environment. However, it didn’t take long for fashion to take hold.

In medieval times, fashionable footwear among those who could afford it included poulaines; long toed shoes with tips that extended way beyond the reach of practicality which “grew to a stage where it would actually prevent the wearer from being able to walk…” (Choklat, 2012).As with most historical fashion trends, the length of one’s poulaines reflected one’s social standing. Another trend of that period – chopines – very tall platform shoes, sometimes “as high as 50cm” (Choklat, 2012) were popularised by Venetian courtesans, who wanted to be able to see and be seen in the crowded streets. This trend was co-opted by rich women who wanted to stand above crowds and be seen as ‘above’ the rest. Both trends died out because they were horrendously impractical, but we’ve been toeing the line between fashion and practicality at least since then, if not before. The 17th and 18th centuries were dominated by celebrity influences – mainly monarchs and the upper class – and both men and women wore high heels – though during Louis the XIV’s reign, none taller than his own (what is it with French rulers and being sensitive about their height?).

After the French revolution, there was a shift away from purely fashion-driven footwear towards more practical shoes. Women didn’t really start wearing high heels again until the mid 19th century.

Shoes have been worn for many reasons throughout known history, and there has always been a tension between practicality and trends, fashion and influencers. That’s a tension we still go back and forth on today. It’s fair to say that over the years as manufacturing has become more automated and streamlined, there are far more options out there to choose from to reflect your own personal style, and that, I think, is why we tend to say that footwear is more about fashion these days than it was in previous centuries. But even then, we’ve been cycling back and forth between practical and fashionable since we invented the concept of fashion.


Reference list

‘London receptionist ‘sent home for not wearing heels’ ’ BBC News 11th May 2016, viewed 12 May 2017, <>.

A man from another era n.d.South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology viewed 25th April 2017 <>.

Choklat, A 2012 Footwear Design, Laurence King Publishing Ltd, London, UK

Lakoff R. T, Ide, S 2005, Broadening the Horizon of Linguistic Politeness, John Benjamins Publishing, viewed 12 May 2016, <>.

Fashionary 2016, Shoe Design, 2nd edn, Fashionary International Ltd, China

The Macquarie Library 1991, shoe (p.1619) in Macquarie Dictionary, 2nd edn, Macquarie University NSW.

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