Step by step


When you pull on your branded shoes for your basketball match or buckle on your black leather footwear, are you aware that shoemakers in Europe once had a patron saint? About 350 A.D., twin brothers named Crispin and Crispinian moved from Rome to France to escape punishment for their religious beliefs. They worked as shoemakers in France, as depicted by an 18th century etching in Italy, until they were beheaded for preaching Christianity. Though there are different versions of this legend, St. Crispin's Day on October 25 has been celebrated for centuries as the shoemaker's holiday.

The story of the shoes we wear today is studded with unusual facts and lore, from all over the globe in the course of its evolution. Did you know that ancient Egyptians inhaled smoke from a burning sandal to cure a headache? Or that, in colonial America, a stomach ache remedy was practised - lying in bed with a pair of heavy boots on the abdomen? Or that people from different countries have worn shoe-shaped charms to ward off danger?

With expensive shoes flooding the Indian market, you think the world would agree on a single scale for shoe sizes. But no. Even today, a man's size eight shoe in England would measure size nine in the U.S. and size 42 in France.

Spanish cave drawings, dating to almost 15,000 years ago, depict people with their feet wrapped in either leather or fur. In 1991, a group of hikers on the Austria-Italy border came across a human body that they nicknamed Otzi. The body had been preserved under a glacier for 5,000 years and had its leather foot coverings intact. Isn't that incredible?

Ancient shoes have been unearthed in the Egyptian pyramids too. One pair from a royal tomb was made of woven palm fibre and grass, and even had upturned toes.

Do you think platform heels are new? The first platform heels were made to keep their wearers away from dirt and discomfort, including the wooden kabkab or nalin stilts worn in the Middle East.

But shoe madness probably peaked in 16th century Venice, where open-toed, velvet-covered chopine shoes atop a 13 to 30 cm platform caught the fancy of aristocratic women. Often, they needed the help of servants to ensure that they did not fall off their chopines into the canals of this Italian water-borne city.

Can you guess where elevated footwear took its first steps? On the ancient Greek stage, where actors wore raised shoes called cothurni for added dramatic effect. They would have seemed tinier to spectators in the stone-cold amphitheatre without this foot prop, right?

Trivia about shoes grows by the day. In the early 17th century, travelling noblemen in England wore shoes with hollow heels. Why? Because that's where they hid their valuables from highwaymen.

In the ancient world, where only the wealthy and the powerful wore shoes, some put their best foot forward in unusual ways. Egyptian King Tutankhamen's tomb, dating back to 1352, revealed a pair of sandals with jewels on them. Roman emperors Julius Caesar and Nero loved to wear sandals of gold and silver. Since then, shoes have been decorated with the oddest ornaments - bells, bows, buckles, diamonds, rhinestones, and even sequins. How eye- catching.

What did man invent when he graduated from wrapping his feet like the primitives? The sandal, of course. These first cropped up in hot areas of Asia, Africa and America. While their hard soles protect our feet from the scorching ground the binding straps allow the air to keep our feet cool and comfortable.

If you're wondering whether sandals always looked like what they do today, stop in your tracks. They did not. The lagoon district of Ghana came up with a pair in the shape of a crocodile. Sandal bases have often been rubber-based, but not always. Paprus and palm leaves formed the base in ancient Egypt, raw animal hides among the Masai people of Africa, rice straw in China and Japan. And of course, there are those quaint wooden kharrows or padukas with toe knobs found all over India, especially at places of worship.

Let's take a step towards that ever-popular moccasin. What sets it apart? Originally, it was made from a single piece of leather -instead of the soles and uppers that are used today. The word moccasin is the Algonquin Indian word for footwear with a soft bottom. Why did the native Americans need such shoes? Well, so that they could hunt in silence. Or kneel comfortably in their canoes. Or even walk around in snow shoes.

Of course, many famous people were known for their shoe mania. Or for the special footwear that triggered a fad. Pablo Picasso, the last century's best-known artist, even wore imitation zebra-skin boots with a sheepskin lining for about a decade before he died in 1973. And John Lennon donned elastic-sided boots that became the trendiest gear of the Sixties, as the Beatles became pop icons.

Even in fairy tales, like Cinderella with her glass slippers or Puss in Boots whose footwear helped him to take giant strides, shoes take on magical qualities.

Like Imelda Marcos of the Philippines and Jacqueline Kennedy of the U.S., Marie Antoinette of France had an unbelievable collection of foot treasures. She even employed a servant whose only job was to tend to her 500 pairs of shoes.

As for Napoleon Bonaparte, soon after he became the French ruler, guess what he did? He demanded that his servant should wear his new boots till they were comfortable enough for him to don. He must have been terrified of shoe-bites.