Before shoes existed, even in the simplest form, people walked around barefoot.
The earliest shoes were used to protect the feet from sharp objects, like rocks and rough terrain and were made from materials easily found in nature, like bark and animal hides.
Sandals were used in hot weather climates and moccasins in colder places (both shoe styles are still among the most common worldwide!).
As time has evolved, so of course has shoe design. Initially, athletic shoes became common, driven by comfort and performance. However, as shoes became fashionable, they became more impractical, driven by look over comfort.
When Did We Start Wearing Shoes?
Anthropologists have used foot bone structure to estimate when the first shoes may have been introduced. Barefoot walkers tend to have thicker toe bones compared to shoed walkers. According to studies, foot anatomy began to change between 26,000 and 30,000 years ago.
Archaeologists, however, believe that evidence suggests that East Asians may have worn shoes up to 42,000 years ago, during the Paleolithic period.
The oldest surviving shoes are sandals made from an ancient fiber found in southeast Oregon and northern Nevada, called the Fort Rock Sandals. They were named by archaeologist Luther Cressman who discovered them in Oregon’s Fort Rock Cave in 1938 after he found them beneath a layer of volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Mazama in 5600 BC. The Fort Rock sandals are thought to be about 9,000 years old.
The oldest leather shoes were found in a cave in Armenia and are about 5,500 years old.
Early Shoe Design
As discussed in the intro, the earliest shoes served an important purpose–to protect one’s feet from rough terrain and sharp objects.
The first appearance of shoes as fashion appeared during the Middle Ages, with the Poulaine, pointed shoes made from expensive materials worn by the upper class.
Over time, shoes became more fancy and lavish, and were only used for special occasions and by people of high status. Since they were worn infrequently, comfort was not generally a consideration in the design.
Up until as late as the 1850s, most shoes were built on straight lasts, which meant that there was no difference between the right and left shoes–they were completely interchangeable (and therefore likely quite uncomfortable!).
The Evolution of Shoes into Fashion
It wasn’t until the High and Late Middle Ages when new ideas and technologies began to transform clothing and shoes as a means of style and status over function.
As shoes became more popular, the aristocrats began to protect their status by passing laws restricting the type of clothing one could wear, in order to prevent the lower class from appearing like the wealthy.
One’s position in society could be determined by their shoe length–the longer the toe, the higher class you were.
It was also during the Middle Ages that shoes began to develop high heels. Evolving from platform sandals worn by actors in Ancient Greece, heels eventually replaced platform shoes. High heels demonstrated social status and wealth.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, shoemakers began to adorn shoes with buckles made from brass, silver, or steel. The fancier the buckle, the higher your social status.
In 1845, the invention of the Rolling machine enabled faster production of shoes. In 1844, Charles Goodyear, Jr. received a patent for vulcanized rubber, which could be used to bond rubber to fabric, creating a sturdier shoe.
The Birth of Sneakers
In 1892, the U.S Rubber Company formed and began developing rubber-soled canvas shoes. Keds, originally called “Peds” from the Latin for foot, was born in 1917 and were the first mass-produced canvas sneakers.
The term “sneaker” was coined on account of the quiet, stealthy nature of rubber-soled shoes compared to wooden soled shoes.
Professional basketball player Chuck Taylor became the brand ambassador for Converse All Stars in 1917. These were the first shoes designed specifically for the sport and the design has stayed virtually the same over the years.
Modern Day Shoes and Foot Problems
Today, people wear uncomfortable shoes on a daily basis, in the name of appearance and status.
The problem with shoes designed with style in mind over comfort is that it leads to the numerous foot problems we see today. High heels, tapered toe boxes, and elevated tips have caused a number of foot health problems.
Dr. Scholl’s exists for a reason. In 1906, the podiatrist William Mathias Scholl launched his brand of corrective footwear.
Between fashion and a drive for sales, comfort often falls low on the list when it comes to shoe design. At Lems, we think we do a good job of combining comfort and style, focusing on a foot-shaped shoe intended to allow the foot to rest in its natural position.