It’s hard to imagine a time before the invention of shoes. Yet what started as a practical venture has grown into a varied, booming industry just as concerned with art as it is with functionality. Though all shoes share basic characteristics, their coloring, materials, and designs have transformed drastically over thousands of years in the fascinating history of footwear.
From archeological and paleoarcheological evidence, experts hypothesize that shoes were invented around in the Middle Paleolithic period approximately 40,000 years ago. However, it wasn’t until the Upper Paleolithic period that footwear was consistently worn by populations. The earliest shoe prototypes were soft, made from wraparound leather, and resembled either sandals or moccasins.
Jump ahead a few thousand years to the beginning of modern footwear. In Europe’s early Baroque period, women’s and men’s shoes were very similar, though fashions and materials differed among social classes. For common folk, heavy black leather heels were the norm, and for aristocrats, the same shape was crafted out of wood.
In the 18th century, fabric shoes like the silk pair below were very much a la mode.
In the early 1800’s, women’s and men’s shoes finally began to differ from one another in style, color, heel, and toe shape. Cloth-topped shoes made an appearance during this era, and boots grew exceedingly popular. After much fluctuation, the standard for a man’s heel finally settled at 1 inch.
Up until 1850, shoes were made straight, meaning that there was no differentiation from left and right shoes. As the twentieth century approached, shoemakers improved comfort by making foot-specific shoes.