Shoes, That Most Excellent of Inventions

Do you remember your first pair of shoes? It's likely your Mother does, because she's probably got them bronzed and sitting on the mantelpiece. When all but the coolest of us were babies, we were stuck with ugly, clunky infant and toddler shoes meant to protect our tootsies and, eventually, to help us walk properly. Of course, we longed to get back to our natural state and kicked off our shoes (and usually the rest of our clothes) whenever we could manage it.

Walking au naturel is both enjoyable and comforting, but it's not something that we can safely do everywhere. Oftentimes the ground itself is too rough for comfortable ambling, and even on the most civilized of surfaces, think of all the things you can step in (ugh!) or get lodged in your feet. Needless to say, as soon as we could, humans invented shoes to protect our feet and keep them warm. The oldest shoes still in existence were found in California, and consist of the simplest of sandals woven from plant fibers. They're about 9,000 (!) years old. Nothing older has survived, simply because primitive shoes were made from natural products that time has since disintegrated.

Primitive comfort

The earliest widely used style of shoes, and one that remains popular today, was the sandal. Cultures in both the Old World and the New invented the basic slip-on thong or flip-flop type, and then elaborated them from there. Interestingly, while the earliest shoes were made specifically for right and left feet in most parts of the world, this was a distinction later lost in the Western World. Right up until the 1830s, shoes for both feet were made on the same lasts, because doing otherwise was expensive. Only the wealthy could afford shoes curved to fit the foot.

Sandals were chic all through the Babylonian and Egyptian cultures (where they were made of woven papyrus reeds, of course), and were extensively used during Greek and Roman times as well. It was during the Greco-Roman era that the idea of the shoes was more fully developed, with close-toed shoes coming into vogue, along with more utilitarian boots. After the fall of the Roman Empire, however, the art of making decent shoes was nearly lost to the west, although Byzantine shoemakers continued to make fine sandals until A.D. 500 or so. Though shoemaking technology declined during the Middle Ages, buckles, snaps, and other crude fasteners were in use by about A.D. 600. However, most people stuck to wooden clogs and crude sandals.

The era of elaboration

Shoe fashions and technology -- indeed, fashion and technology in general -- began to pick up as the European Middle Ages transitioned into the Renaissance. Styles and sizes were standardized during this period, and began to resemble, somewhat, the variety of styles we enjoy today. Indeed, we still wear most of the fashions that they once did, though thankfully high, buttoned shoes are no longer considered necessary and, with the exception of a few particularly silly boot styles, high heels are considered déclassé for men. If we're lucky, we'll never go back to poutaines, those medieval shoes with pointed toes so long that they had to be chained to the knees so one could wear them without tripping. This may seem unlikely to ever happen, but consider, if you will, the popularity of Dance Dance Revolution a few years back. At least the Pope didn't have to threaten to excommunicate people if they didn't stop jumping around like epileptic chipmunks, though perhaps he should have.

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