From chopines to crakows, art historian Yassana Croizat-Glazer explores the importance of shoe trends across the centuries.
One of my first great (sartorial) loves was a black shoe. I remember the first time I saw it, elevated on a pedestal like the precious sculpture it was, spotlighted in the window of a trendy Soho boutique now gone. It was a suede slingback with a spool heel and a three-inch platform. Topping the shoe was a bow of just the right size, and the leather lining was a luminous shade of gold. It was as if a Victorian boot and a disco-era pump had a love child, and it was calling me. We were gonna go to amazing places together, it said, and it was right. I somehow managed not to sprain an ankle during the years I wore my beloved slingback and its twin all over New York and on several trips abroad. We stood on the Bridge of Sighs together, hobbled through the Parisian métro, and nearly lost each other in Tangiers. The thinner their soles became, the fuller my soul grew. Even now, when I think of those shoes, I remember not only how they made me feel (immortal) but most importantly, to where and to whom we teetered.
Shoes have a long history of fulfilling many functions, from the strictly practical to the deeply psychological. They protect, “civilize,” marginalize, as well as transform, and in so doing, reveal many of our strengths and weaknesses.
Shoes have a long history of fulfilling many functions, from the strictly practical to the deeply psychological. They protect, “civilize,” marginalize, as well as transform, and in so doing, reveal many of our strengths and weaknesses. After a year of pandemic-induced hibernation, shoes, especially anything that isn’t the equivalent of a fuzzy slipper, have become a dirty word for many, while others have eagerly resumed life in stilettos. As we ponder our new circumstances and what footwear matches best, I invite you to join me on a jaunt down a side-street of shoe-history lane. We’ll explore how these accessories have been used time and again to augment bodies and stoke desire, while considering some of the motivations behind a few of the more startling footwear trends to have emerged in western culture.
Stepping Out: The Crakow Craze
Let’s face it: as a species, we’re terribly insignificant—just one evening of gazing at the Milky Way will tell you as much. It’s a fact that’s bred insecurity in humans for quite some time and prompted many kinds of responses, including the desire to exercise control and occupy more space. Both needs find themselves expressed in a kind of footwear that first emerged in Europe in the medieval period, reaching extravagant proportions by the late 14th century. Ending in a point or upward curl, the shoes in question could extend up to 20 inches beyond the wearer’s foot and were generally stuffed with moss or horsehair to retain their shape. They were known as poulaines or crakows, after Poland and its capital Kraków, from where the fashion seems to have spread, its origins possibly the result of contact with the Muslim world, where upturned shoes existed in different forms.
Although crakows were worn by wealthy women and men, the latter adopted the most extreme versions. For starters, the long gowns sported by rich women weren’t suited to excessively long, upturned footwear, while the tight hose worn by men in this period were ideal for highlighting crakows, which had a phallic aspect courtesy of their long, pointy silhouettes. This fact wasn’t lost on authorities, who saw the shoes as markers (and inciters) of all sorts of sexual depravity. It didn’t help that crakows made it difficult not only to walk, but also to kneel—and therefore to pray, prompting Pope Urban V to ban the shoes in 1362. Of course, the best way to make something desirable is to forbid it, and so the vogue for crakows endured. Their very impracticality made them a favorite of the idle classes, who in places such as England, retained the right to wear the longest versions thanks to special laws.
Stepping Up: Chopines in 16th-Century Venice
Both men and women also wore pattens, which were typically made of wood and worn over shoes to protect them from the pungent muck lining medieval streets. In this case, however, it was women who wore the fad’s most outlandish iterations, particularly in 16th century Venice. Known as chopines, these platforms were often covered with punched leather and could measure well over a foot in height! Such “stilts” elevated their wearer both literally and symbolically, reinforcing the notion that the lady in question was above all things common. Denoting wealth and sophistication, chopines restricted women’s mobility, since walking in them necessitated help. In this way, chopines were instrumental in maintaining Renaissance Venice’s patriarchal power structure, which held that “proper” women should remain at home away from prying eyes, venturing outdoors only in the company of chaperones.
Said establishment was also preoccupied with ensuring that rich, cultured prostitutes known as courtesans not be confused with “virtuous” women, a task complicated by the similarity of their dress. A popular print shows a courtesan dressed at the height of late 16th-century Venetian fashion, including a fan-shaped ruff and horned hairstyle. To titillate voyeuristic audiences, her skirt lifts to reveal her breeches, a masculine article of clothing adopted by prostitutes in this period (to the anger of authorities who saw cross-dressing as opening the door to sexual vice). Also exposed are the woman’s staggering chopines, long associated with courtesans by historians, though research suggests that the platforms’ height may have been more a factor of elevated social status than an indicator of prostitution.
Playing Footsie: From “Blood Heels” to Flying Mules
Sky-high wigs may be what we now associate most with the French aristocracy, but heels were another favorite aid to standing taller. Louis XIV (1638–1715) was a fan, even using them in his quest to achieve absolute power. Having launched the fashion for red heels (the color of his trampled enemies’ blood), the king made them mandatory for courtiers who were in his favor—and by the same token, ensured the public humiliation of those who were not. In a way this trend has survived through Christian Louboutin’s pumps, the subject of Cardi B’s hit “These are red bottoms, these are blood shoes.” So coveted as status symbols have Louboutin’s creations become that some people have taken to getting the look without the cost by dying the underside of their shoes “Louboutin red”—all in a bid to signal their belonging to a fashionable elite.
In other words, there has long existed a language of shoes—one that not only operates in real time but also in how shoes are represented in the visual arts. In 18th-century France, mules were among the most popular styles for women until the Revolution, when heels and other accessories associated with a privileged lifestyle were rejected. Made of soft materials like silk and velvet, the slippers aligned with the flirtatious culture promoted by the Rococo period which lasted until the 1760s, and during which feet played a special role. Lovers can’t stop throwing themselves at each other’s feet in the period’s literature, and by 1769, Nicholas Restif de la Bretonne (1734–1806) publishes Franchette’s Pretty Little Foot, which centers on a full-blown foot fetish (the author’s name gives us “retifism,” another term for this proclivity).
Exposing the heel and associated with intimate settings, mules had the kind of sensuality the century prized—and Rococo artists capitalized upon. Take, for instance, François Boucher’s painting of a woman getting ready as her attendant presents her with a cap. The act of tying a garter offers the artist a pretext to highlight the young woman’s shapely leg terminating in a tiny foot encased in a pointy mule. The twitching tail draws further attention to the shoe, the cat being a crude signifier for the woman’s vagina (chatte, French for “pussy,” having the same double-meaning). Foot, shoe, woman—like all the tchotchkes filling the room—are on display, an intimate world served up for the viewer’s delectation.
There has long existed a language of shoes—one that not only operates in real time but also in how shoes are represented in the visual arts.
Simply putting on a mule may be read in sexual terms since the wearer must slide into it, a concept fraught with Freudian overtones. The idea is often brought up in relation to what is arguably the most iconic of 18th-century French paintings, Fragonard’s The Swing. In a powder puff of a setting, a man pushes a woman on a swing as her reclining lover catches sight of what lies beneath her parted skirts. Swinging itself, with its back-and-forth rhythm, may be considered suggestive of intercourse—an allusion reinforced by the fact that the woman’s pink mule has just slid off her foot. The movement of the shoe, together with the exposure of the young woman’s foot, speak of the sexual abandon that will soon take place between the painting’s two main protagonists.
Conclusion: Shoes as Self-Portraiture
It’s interesting to consider Fragonard’s flying mule in relation to another set of pink shoes, this time painted by a woman around 1879–80. The artist in question was Impressionist Eva Gonzalès (1849–1883), who studied with Edouard Manet and whose work earned her great recognition before her untimely death while giving birth. In truly Modernist spirit, Gonzalès made her painting’s only focus a pair of silk evening pumps, thereby taking an ordinary object and treating it with a dignity historically reserved for queens and cardinals.
It’s precisely because shoes can act as a self-portrait that they’re the best suited of all the fashion accessories to assist in the forging of a new persona.
There is sensuality here too, but it is of a different, more complex kind, divorced from any clear narrative. For starters, omitting their wearer entirely strengthens the shoes’ fetishistic aura, which is also intensified by their pink hue and downy rosettes. As for the pumps’ imperfect alignment, it suggests they have just been casually discarded, their pliable fabric still retaining the memory of their owner’s flesh. The image can be thought of as a kind of self-portrait, an idea that finds expression in the very way the composition is executed. Gonzales’s identity as an artist is imprinted in every visible brushstroke, each a celebration of the artifice that is painting and of her deep appreciation of the moody, painterly style of Spanish Baroque artists such as Velázquez. Along those lines, the fact that the shoes rest on a reflective surface allowed Gonzalès to demonstrate her skill, but also seems to underline the notion of them as a reflection of her.
Looking back, that’s what I liked so much about my old suede slingbacks; they felt so much like a reflection of me at the time. It’s precisely because shoes can act as a self-portrait that they’re the best suited of all the fashion accessories to assist in the forging of a new persona. In the words of Billie Eilish: “it’s really fun to put yourself into a character—into shoes you wouldn’t normally be in.” The singer’s quote taps into that common idiom, “putting oneself into someone else’s shoes,” which really means to try to discover what it feels like to be that person. In the end, what makes shoes so utterly fascinating is their ability to make us feel most, and least, like ourselves—and to allow us the freedom to waver between the two.