Sixteenth Century Footwear

"y the sixteenth century footwear construction methods had grown quite advanced. The shoes of common people were generally made of leather, and while they were fairly simple in construction they were also very durable. Soles were made of wood, cork, or extra layers of leather, and uppers, or the tops of shoes, were either tied or buckled in place. Shoemakers, called cobblers, also developed the ability to make very tall boots for riding or fieldwork. These boots came up to the thigh and had a floppy leather cuff that could be rolled down. In the next century these boots would become fancier in their design and were commonly worn by men of the upper class. In the sixteenth century, however, they were still used primarily for outdoor work or by members of mounted military units.

The footwear of the upper classes was usually far from practical. In keeping with the century's trend toward rich fabrics and elaborate ornament, both men and women wore shoes that emphasized fashion over comfort or ease of use. Men in the early

Most wealthy men of the sixteenth century wore slippers made of soft leather, silk, or velvet, often in patterns matched to their outfits. Reproduced by permission of © Gianni Dagli Orti/CORBIS.

Most wealthy men of the sixteenth century wore slippers made of soft leather, silk, or velvet, often in patterns matched to their outfits. Reproduced by permission of © Gianni Dagli Orti/CORBIS.

Body Decoration

part of the century were fond of very wide-toed shoes. Leather slipons, called duck's bill shoes, flared out at the toe. In their most extreme form they could be as wide as twelve inches at the toe and forced men to walk like a duck. This fashion faded by midcentury, and most wealthy men wore slippers made of soft leather, silk, or velvet, often in patterns matched to their outfit. Women also adopted an extremely impractical form of shoe called the chopine. These slippers sat atop a platform that ran the length of the shoe and could be as high as twenty-four inches. Chopines were very difficult to walk in. People of both sexes also began to wear shoes with thicker heels, including the first wedge heels. Both men and women used ribbons, bows, and jewels to decorate their shoes. Such shoes were not intended for outdoor wear, of course, and both sexes wore overshoes called pattens and pantofles to protect their dainty shoes if they did go outside in them.


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Introduction by Ruth M. Green. Dorset, England: Blandford Press,

Lawlor, Laurie. Where Will This Shoe Take You?: A Walk Through the History of Footwear. New York: Walker and Co., 1996.

Chopines (sha-PEENS), shoes with very tall wooden or cork platform soles, inspired what some consider the first clothing fad. During the High Renaissance of the sixteenth century, fashionable, wealthy women in Venice, Italy, eagerly climbed into these shoes that ranged from six to twenty-four inches in height. Feet were secured to the pedestals with straps of leather or uppers (the part of a shoe above the sole) made of silk or other fabric. The tops of chopines were rarely seen; the shoes were more valued for their height and for the dainty stride they required of wearers. Towering on their shoes in glamorous long gowns, women who wore chopines needed the support of their husbands or maids to hobble the streets and royal courts of Venice.


Chopines made Italian women "half flesh, half wood," remarked traveler John Evelyn in his diary of 1666, as quoted in The Book of Costume.

The craze for chopines in Italy coincided with the peak of attraction for extravagant dress during the 1500s, when almost every article of clothing was highly exaggerated. By the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, Spanish, French, and Swiss women were also teetering fashionably on chopines. The fad never reached northern Europe.

Chopines were not an Italian invention. The shoes signaled the establishment of trade between Venetian merchants and the Near East, or southwest Asia. Although the true origins of chopines is not known, the tall clogs Turkish women wore in bathhouses or the pedestal shoes worn by actors on Greek stages in early history may have been the inspiration for chopines. Chopines were used by the Manchus (people native to Manchuria who ruled China from 1644 to 1912) in China in the mid-1600s as a less painful alternative to the deforming effects of foot binding that had been practiced since the tenth century. (Foot binding was a common practice in China whereby young women and girls would bind their feet so as to make them stop growing.) The pedestals of Chinese chopines were much slimmer than those developed in Venice, offering women a footprint similar to that of bound feet and giving them the same difficulty walking.

Although enjoyed for their glamorous, fashionable effect, chopines were considered by some observers as tools to keep women in the home, to keep them from wandering, going astray morally. Indeed, this was the purpose of the foot binding that chopines replaced in China, and chopines did make walking a slow and difficult task. In Italy clergymen regarded the wearing of chopines as particularly admirable because the shoes inhibited the wearer from indulging in morally dangerous pleasures such as dance.


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Kybalová, Ludmila, Olga Herbenová, and Milena Lamarová. The Pictorial Encyclopedia of Fashion. Translated by Claudia Rosoux. London, England: Paul Hamlyn, 1968.

Wilton, Mary Margaret Stanley Egerton, Countess of, and R. L. Shep. The Book of Costume: Or Annals of Fashion (1846) by a Lady of Rank. Lopez Island, WA: R. L. Shep, 1986.

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