The history of footwear spans almost the length of human history. As long as humans have been around we have sought ways to protect ourselves from exposure and injury. Once we had established ways of doing this reliably, doing so attractively became a new priority. The beauty of garments and the consumption of particular items in their construction became a mark of the status of the wearer.
This is especially true in footwear.
One of the styles with the longest history is the wedge.
We first start seeing wedge-heeled sandals in Ancient Assyria, dating back to about 2100 BCE, but unlike in modern society, wedge sandals in Assyria were worn by men. Made of layers of cut leather, they were an obvious example of conspicuous consumption and were a style favored by high-ranking men. The height of the wedge also improved the posture and allowed them to literally rise above the common man.
Another variation of the wedge shoe appeared in the late middle ages and early renaissance. This style was more of an over-shoe designed to protect the wearer’s more expensive footwear from being damaged as they walked through the streets. These were known at the time as chopines. Most of the time they were carved from wood or cork and were covered with silk or velvet to make them prettier. Some of them were just high enough to keep a woman’s skirt from dragging in the grossness that covered the city streets, while others were so high that they required the wearer to call upon the assistance of her servants in order to walk.
As in Assyria, the height of the chopine became a mark of status. Similar to the cases of foot-binding in Imperial China, the higher the chopine and the less you had to walk in them, the richer you were. They remained popular in Europe for almost two centuries before shoe designers realized that it would be easier and a lot safer to simply make shoes with a proper heel and lower the platform.
This style was especially prominent in Venice, Italy. Visitors to the city commented on the impracticality of the style, to the point that the description of them became a running joke, saying that they had been invented by jealous husbands who had hoped that by limiting their wives’ movements outside the home, it would limit their contact with other men and prevent them from taking lovers. It is possible that this theory was inspired because Venetian prostitutes often wore very high chopines to make them stand out in a crowd and attract more clients, and in fact there are stories of courtesans awaiting clients in their bordellos wearing chopines and nothing else.
Italian chopines were also known by the slang term “tappinare”, which was a sexual act performed by prostitutes, and even know the Italian word for “clog”, zoccila, is used as a slang term for these ladies.
The Japanese ‘geta’ could be considered another form of these shoes, though technically they would be more of a ‘platform’ style than an actual ‘wedge’. First created for use while tilling rice fields, they really became prominent in the Heian Period (794 – 1192 CE). Geta are made of flat panels of wood that are supported by wooden blocks called ha (teeth), and are held onto the foot with a fabric thong. Though they can be worn with modern clothing they are most commonly paired with more ceremonial garments like kimono and yukata, and can also be worn in wet and muddy weather to keep the feet dry.
The true wedge style comes in with the okobo, a variation of geta worn by maiko (apprentice geisha). Okobo are shaped in kind of an inverted wedge, which taper downwards from the toe to the heel. As with the chopines, the smaller the base that was left to stand on, the smaller and more delicate the apprentice’s steps were and the more graceful and beautiful she appeared.
Another variation of the okobo, called pokkuri, is often worn by children during the Shichi-Go-San Festival, which celebrates the growth of young children aged seven, five, and three. Kind of like the modern squeaky-sneaker, these little wedges have tiny bells inside that jingle when you walk.
Wedges resurfaced again in the early twentieth century. After Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, the whole world went a little history-crazy, and everything to do with the ancient world became the height of style — pun completely intended.
By the 1930’s, most women preferred shoes that could be dressed up or down depending on the occasion.Most sandals of this time were decorated with sequins and crystals for evening wear, or covered in leather and cloth for everyday use. Wedge heels of the 1930’s were made of cork and were padded with insoles to make them more comfortable.
The style prevailed even through the end of the war years, a time when women were caught between their work for the war effort and the gradual recession back into the home. Wedges were seen as a blending of masculine and feminine styles in a time where the rigid gender roles of the previous decades were starting to blur, offering sturdiness and height to create a more imposing stature, softened with pretty fabrics and embellishment more typical of ladies’ footwear.
Wedge-heeled footwear all but disappeared during the nineteen-fifties and -sixties, not returning again until the dance-crazed days of the nineteen-seventies. Unlike in past centuries, both men and women wore wedges and platform shoes, which I find an interesting reflection on the changes in society going on at the time. It was a time of freedom and experimentation and the gender separation going on in Western society really began to fade. At this time it wasn’t uncommon to see a woman walking down the street wearing four-inch-high platform shoes, then see her partner next to her and realize that his shoes were every bit as high.
Today wedge heels are advertised as a staple in every woman’s wardrobe. Their versatility allows them to be paired with any kind of outfit in any season, from cozy heeled boots for winter, to flirty summer sandals, and subtle single-inch heels to stunning four-inch espadrilles. The style manages to be both timeless and modern, elevating the confidence as they elevate the height.