From foot bags to stilettos in 40,000 years

shoe drawing illustration


Your feet can get cold and your feet can get hurt. Although the hardened feet of our Stone Age ancestors were probably more resilient to the elements than ours, it is generally believed that man first started making "shoes" to protect them around 40,000 years ago.

Ancient sandals

The first known footwear are these sandals made from bark that were found in Oregon, USA and are more than 10,000 years old.

It is most likely that these "shoes" would be mere animal hides wrapped around the feet for protection. As such, they were more "foot bags" than shoes — and more common in colder climates.

The oldest known crafted foot covering is a sandal. Not surprising when you consider its simplicity and that it serves the most important need of the foot in warm climates: to protect its sole from being hurt by the surface it is placed upon.

The oldest existing examples are more than 10,000 years old and were found in 1938 in the Fort Rock Cave in Oregon. The sandals were made of bark from the Artemisia plant.

Later, the Egyptians made them using braided papyrus for the sole and palm fibre for the throng (a strip of material passing between the first and second toes and secured to the sole). The flip flops that we wear today are not so dissimilar to those once worn in ancient Egypt.

By 400 BCE the Greeks had become skilled shoe and sandal makers. It was possible to know the occupation of an ancient Greek by simply looking at his feet. The Greeks had become so obsessed with footwear that there was a shoe type for every activity.

During the Middle Ages, the turn shoe was invented. It was called a turn shoe because the shoe leather was sewn inside out and then turned right side out once finished. This would hide the main seam between the sole and the upper part of the shoe and prevent moisture from leaking in.

Outrageous fashions 

Shoe design, and the odd shoe trend, developed over the next few centuries. One particular female fashion was the Venetian chopine, which deserves recognition for its sheer outrageousness.

The chopine was a type of shoe with a hazardous raised platform sole. Some were up to thirty inches tall, making it impossible to walk without a trusty attendant.

Venetian chopine

The 16th century 'chopines' height was associated with the level of nobility of the woman who wore them.

After the French Revolution in 1789, there was a dramatic change in the shoe styles of the wealthy. Heeled shoes, fashioned from expensive silks and satins and adorned with showy buckles, disappeared.

The revolutionary ideas of equality influenced shoe design and sensible styles made from inexpensive and practical leathers became popular.

During the 19th and early 20th century, women's legs and feet were always hidden under their long dresses, so shoe styles were of little interest.

Gentlemen suffered too with few options to choose from. Their shoes were usually black and conservative in style.

The middle-class foot 

After being hidden away for centuries, the rebellious female flappers of the 1920s dared to blow away the dust from their legs and feet. Flappers embraced all things modern and wore the latest fashionably high Mary Janes and T-bar styles.

1920s Flappers

F. Scott Fitzgerald described flappers as 'lovely, expensive and about nineteen'.

It was also during this time that footwear began to be mass-manufactured and became a fashion item for the middle classes.

In the 1930s, this spread of the shoe as a fashion item resulted in the now well-known stiletto heel that, although hardly practical, went on to become hugely popular with women of the 1950s. It takes its name from the stiletto dagger that has a slender, tapering blade and a sharp point.

Another somewhat bizarre shoe fashion, similar to the chopine, emerged in the 1970s. This was the age of glam rock and disco and the unisex shoe for fans was the funky platform.

Today, just like our Greek ancestors, we have footwear for every occasion and activity. On average, a person in the West will invest in three new pairs of shoes every year.



The world's best known shoe collector, former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcus, is said to have acquired approximately 3,000 pairs of shoes during her husband's 20-year dictatorship.

In 2001, she opened 'The Marikina Footwear Museum' in Manila. Most of the exhibits are her own footwear.



Leathers such as buckskin, nubuck, suede and patent are the most common materials used for making the upper part of the shoe.

The soles of shoes can now be made in a variety of materials. These include plant fibres, leather, wood and rubber.