Sunday, 17 January 2010

Solemates – Humanity’s Fascination for Shoes



Shoes fascinate us. In every culture, shoes are more than utility items. We design, display and buy shoes we like. The desire to express our uniqueness through shoes is an ancient urge. Shoes also play an important role in determining social status or telling about our professions and character. Shoes also figure in language, as metaphors as also in dream interpretation.
Three quarters of the miseries and misunderstandings in the world would finish if people were to put on the shoes of their adversaries and understood their points of view” – Mahatma Gandhi.

Shoes in Mythology

A one-shoed man was very dangerous for Pelias in the tale of Jason and the Argonauts in Greek mythology.

In Norse mythology, shoes are crucial. Vidar, the silent God, is the sun of Odin and a symbol of resurrection and renewal. He avenges the death of Odin and kills Fenris wolf with his shoe, which has been made from all the waste pieces of Northern cobblers through all time.

In the ancient Indian epic Ramayana, Bharat asks for the Paduka or shoes of Rama, and installs them on the throne to rule in Rama’s absence.


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For Cinderella, the glass slipper affects her transformation from low to high status. A bright engineer has calculated what qualities would the glass in Cinderella's slippers need can be so that it can stand dancing and running.  Here's the link.


Plutarch writes about the rites, the king of Delphi had to do yearly to avoid the draughts and famines that plagued Delphi when he threw his slippers at a poor girl, Charilla and killed her.

Long History of Human Footwear

How did humans in the Ice Age (ending about 12 000 years ago) protect their feet from freezing?



By wrapping them in animal hides.
Shortly after killing the animal, when the hide was still soft and supple, people placed their foot on the hide and cut out a shape around their foot. Then they wrapped the hide up to their ankle and secured it in place with strips of hide, or thongs.

Good remains of human clothing go back twenty five thousand years. The earliest remaining shoes in the world are probably about 10 000 years old, found in Fort Rock, Oregon, USA.




These excellent shoes were made from natural plant fibres, like the indigenous Yucca plant. Two piece construction of soles and shoe-body made separately came in the Roman era.
The Valmiki Ramayana of India describes how shoes were invented in the 6th millennium B.C. King Jamadagni was practising archery. Renuka, a princess was running to bring the arrows back and got blisters on her feet. The sage Vashishta healed her feet with ointments and told the king to get suitable protection for her. Voila! soles and shoes were invented.


The Arabs introduced tanned leather in Spain in the eighth century.

The first Mayflower pilgrims learned how to make animal-hide moccasins from the Amerindians and the colonies began exporting moccasins to England in 1650. America's first factory for mechanized shoe production was established in Lynn, Massachusetts in 1760. An American, Humphrey O’Sullivan, patented the first rubber heel for shoes in 1899. The first rubber soled shoes called plimsolls were developed and manufactured in the United States in the late 1800s though they were developed in Liverpool in the 1830’s.

Shoes Determine Social Rank in Different Cultures


Class distinction by footwear!


In ancient Egypt (a warm climate), slaves went bare feet. Ordinary people wore simple sandals of woven papyrus. Red or yellow sandals and those with pointed toes were only for the royalty or aristocracy.

The Etruscans and later the Romans were very conscious about who wears what on their feet. A senator would always wear matching colour stripes on his toga and shoes (calcei).




At the doorsteps, the high-ranking men would take off their shoes and put on sandals, which the slaves carried with them.



Martial Roman men wore the Cothornus to show who is the boss.



European monarchs like Louis XIV or Henry VIII used designer shoes to hide their deformities and these shoes became fashionable.




In the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), only the emperor could wear bright yellow shoes. The nobles could wear shades of golden yellow. The closest common people could get in colour shades were apricot-yellow.

Go Barefoot to Show Respect


Taking off one’s shoes to show respect is also an ancient tradition in almost all cultures. In Exodus 3,5 Yahweh commands Moses

"Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground."

Hindu and Buddhist scriptures have, since ancient times, warned worshippers to remove their footwear before entering a shrine. Muslim tradition demands even today that shoes be removed before entering a place of worship. Jain pilgrims walk bare feet to avoid killing insects. In the Maori culture of New Zealand, people cannot enter the shrine called Marae wearing shoes. Many Christian religious orders like the Franciscans, Minims, the Capuchins etc choose to be discalced. This usually means wearing only sandals and not shoes.

Footwear Fashions Vary Ancient Styles

In the Little Ice Age (16th – 19th centuries), shoes replaced sandals in the colder climates. The sabot (klompen in Dutch), cut from a single piece of wood, became the typical footwear of European peasantry. The word sabotage came from these as disgruntled workers threw their clogs in machines to disrupt them.

The English version was a cloth on a wooden platform.




Sometimes people may wear "tasteless" shoes to get attention.
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Wearing elaborate, unwieldy and impractical footwear is an indication of higher social rank by showing that the wearer cannot (does not need to) work. They can also signify a chosen profession.
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These modern designer men’s shoes are a definite statement other than "I want to wear these off by hard work!"


What do these shoes tell you about the wearer?


Shoes with wings are an ancient theme. The Greek God Hermes as well as the Roman Mercury had winged shoes.



So do these trendy shoes designed by the contemporary Finnish designer, Minna Parikka.





Papal Shoes - Rules About The Pope’s Shoes

The current Pope, Benedictus XVI is famous for his elegant red shoes. Cardinals are banned from using red shoes.



Shoes Meant to Control Women

The ancient Chinese custom of binding women's feet to keep them small arose from a male desire to insure faithfulness. The argument was that with such deformed feet the wife could not travel very far on foot.

Probably the same reason was for the High-heeled platform shoes becoming the rage in Venice in the sixteenth century. Women could walk and climb gondolas in these only if servants helped them.
Some shoes are meant to protect women from hurtfully behaving men. The Aphrodite shoes for sex-workers protect them from violent customers (men).


Odd Customs About Shoes
In almost all countries of the world, you can see shoes with their laces tied together thrown over poles, cables, wires etc. In Los Angeles, it is often seen as a sign of gang turf or that drugs are sold there.




Showing the soles of you shoes is a serious Arab insult. After the first Gulf war, a mosaic of President Bush the Father’s face was laid on the floor of Baghdad's best and biggest Al-Rashid hotel. Everyone had to walk on his face to enter the hotel. In 2003, US soldiers destroyed the mosaic and replaced it with an image of Saddam Hussein.

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Shoes can be very dangerous too, as these Americans, President Bush in Iraq and a Neocon found out in Pakistan.


Shoes in Politics

Adlai Stevenson’s (defeated by Kennedy in Democratic party presidential nominations) famous hole in the left shoe, which was worn out due to walking much on campaigns has become a symbol for diligence in campaigning. There is a statue (showing the hole) in Illinois airport.




Nikita Kruschev’s granddaughter explains here the real reasons for her granddad’s shoe-banging speech at the UN in 1960.




A shoe played a great part in the first non-ideological alliance between a Christian and a non-Christian empire. When François 1, the renaissance king of France was imprisoned after the battle of Pavia in 1525, by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, the French king's envoy Jean Frangipani carried a letter in the sole of his shoes to France's ally, the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificient asking for help.

Sexual Shoe Fetish

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Some people (both male and female) have sexual shoe fetishes. They get extraordinary sexual pleasure from seeing, looking at, caressing, handling and licking shoes. 

  • The American serial killer, Jerry Brudos also known as the ‘shoe-fetish slayer’ 
  • British shoe-rapist James Lloyd, who raped women and stole their shoes are notorious shoe-criminals.

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Shoe fetish in movies and Television:

  • In the film ‘There’s Something about Maryone of Mary’s ex-boyfriends with a shoe fetish used to steal her shoes. 
  • The landlord character Joe Fusco Jr., in the film “While you were Sleeping” has a shoe fetish.
  • The Bilingual Lover, a Spanish (1993) film is full of shoe fetishism
  • While You Were Sleeping (1995) starring Sandra Bullock - the protagonist has a shoe fetish 
  • Family Guy TV comedy character Glen Quagmire has a shoe and foot fetish
  • Musashi Miyamae, one of the main characters in the 2000 Japan Fuji-TV serial Bus Stop/Summer Destiny is obsessed with women's high heels

Shoes in Espionage


Spies have used shoes very effectively. In the 1960's and 1970's the Soviet KGB used shoe transmitters to hear the conversations they wanted to. By using a maid or other confidant to replace a target's shoes with these bugged ones, they changed the wearers into radio transmitters. Then their clandestine stations would pick up the conversations. However, these could not be used to make phone calls like the secret agent Maxwell Smart did in Get Smart! Even CIA's official site reports Maxwell Smart's shoe phone.

You can buy modern Chinese made Omejo Shoe cameras, which transmit photos to your mobile, here for about 300 US dollars.

There are claims that in the 1950's and 1960's CIA operative tied shoelaces in certain patterns to communicate messages. Here are some examples.



If you are into bizarre shoes, check out some extraordinary shoes here.



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