Marilyn Monroe once said that if you give a girl the right pair of shoes, she can conquer the world. And these days, there are seemingly endless footwear choices to help you feel powerful, from self-tying sneakers to peep-toe pumps. But there's been a long evolution of women's shoes to get us where we are today.
People have basically been wearing shoes since the dawn of civilization. And when you think about it, it makes sense that someone at some point decided to protect their feet with fabric. But once you start digging into the history of footwear over the years, you realize that shoes have always had some deeper meaning, like the ability to say something about an individual's culture or social status or personality. You'll also likely realize that a lot of the styles we consider classics today, like high heels or even flip-flops, have historical precedents. If you look back far enough, you can even find shoes that seem shockingly modern.
So the next time you're lacing up your sneakers or slipping on a pair of stilettos, remember that there's lots of history that fits in those shoes. Here's a brief look at the evolution of shoes across the centuries.
1. Ancient Civilizations: The First Flip-Flops
The world's oldest known leather shoe, pictured above, was discovered in 2010 in a cave in Armenia, according to a report in National Geographic . Nearly 5,500 years old, this shoe is made of a single piece of cowhide and stuffed with straw, presumably for insulation.
But these shoes from Armenia aren't even the oldest documented shoes in history. Ancient Egyptians, for example, wore sandals made of coiled grass and leaves, according to the British Museum, and these wicker-like sandals kind of look like modern-day flip-flops that just happen to be made out of twine.
One of the biggest differences between footwear then and now, besides the obvious manufacturing and material upgrades, is the frequency of use. Shoes were pretty optional way back in the day; even athletes in the very first Olympic games in ancient Greece competed barefoot, which makes much more sense when you're spending the majority of your time barefoot anyway.
2. The Renaissance: Practical Heels
Though high heels are rarely the "practical" footwear option these days, during the Renaissance, they actually did serve a primarily sensible function for both men and women. Chopines were an early verson of the modern high heel, mainly worn by courtesans in Venice, according to the Metropolitan Museum Of Art, which has a pair at its Costume Institute. The shoe's thick sole was meant to keep a woman from stepping in any one of Venice's canals or puddles, though they did reach heights high enough that some assistance was needed from an attendant while walking.
Men also wore heels for practical reasons rather than peacocking. As Elizabeth Semmelhack, a curator from the Bata Shoe Museum, explained in an interview with Racked, "When the soldier stood up in his stirrups, the heel helped to secure his stance so that he could shoot his bow and arrow more easily."
3. 17th & 18th Centuries: High-Heeled Men
High heels went from being a practical part of a soldier's uniform to the primary footwear for European aristocracy, ushered in by the French. Rumor has it that King Louis XIV, the dude who built Versailles and referred to himself as "The Sun King" because he believed the universe revolved around him, was exceptionally fond of his legs. He wore heels in part to show off his dancers' physique, as in the now-famous official portrait above in which the king's legs look nearly unnaturally toned.
Heels also represented power, not just nice calves. King Louis XIV was the progenitor of the red-bottomed shoe and used it as symbol of his power, only allowing those who were granted access to his court to also wear shoes with red heels, according to the Bata Shoe Museum. At the time, there was no gender differentiation between pairs of shoes, so the ones that the king wore would've been fit for a queen as well.
4. The French Revolution: Flats & Booties
After the French Revolution, Europeans were stoked on getting rid of the symbols of the old aristocracy and all that came along with it. High heels were a very clear sartorial symbol of that decadence, so the embroidered heels of days past were decidedly out , and they stayed out of style for a very long time — nearly 50 years, according to the Bata Shoe Museum — and replaced by somewhat more practical booties and flats.
5. Industrial Revolution: Machine Stitching & Synthetic Materials
The Industrial Revolution marked an important change in both processes and materials. Gone were the hand-stitched chopines or elaborately embroidered heels, and in came the factories that could suddenly pump out shoes with the help of sewing machines. It was also in the mid-1800s that Charles Goodyear, whose name you might recognize from the tires on your car, invented vulcanized rubber, which could then be used as soles. Thus, the first sign of a modern-day sneaker was born, as Newsweek explains.
6. 1920s & 1930s: Suffragettes & Hollywood
During this era, high heels became distinctly associated with women rather than being a genderless accessory. Suffragettes often wore high heels as a way to guard their femininity as they fought for equal civil rights, according to the Bata Shoe Museum, demonstrating that they could both vote and still be traditionally feminine. But that association of heels with femininity took a slightly sexier bent after the stock market crashed in 1929, and high heels became the preferred shoe of Hollywood starlets and sex symbols.
7. 1950s: The Stiletto Emerges
Roger Vivier invented the stiletto, that now-classic pump with a slender, talon-like heel, while working for Christian Dior in 1954. And that style has remained functionally unchanged for many decades, remaining the shape most people conjure up when talking about heels.
8. 1970s & 1980s: High-Fashion Sneakers
Sneakers, for many decades, had been relegated to basketball courts. Though there had existed popular sneakers like Chuck Taylors, none had really been appropriate to wear on a day-to-day basis. But Nike changed all that when it released the Nike Cortez in 1973, which is now called the first fashion sneaker, according to CNN. Gucci also got into the high-fashion sneaker game in 1984, releasing its own tennis shoe that was more at-home in the club than on the courts.
9. 2010s: Armadillo Heels & More
These days, it seems that anything goes when it comes to shoes, and the designs are only becoming more elaborate as the years go on. Perhaps the best example of innovative shoe design comes form Alexander McQueen, who came out with the now-unmistakable Armadillo boot in 2010 that seems to place all the wearer's weight on their toes, defying gravity in the process.
Even with all of these innovations, many of the old classics, like a good stiletto or even a pair of Nike tennis shoes, remain trendy and stylish to this day. So if there's one thing to be learned from this brief history lesson, it's that nearly every style of shoe that we wear has a precedent.