History of shoes: the evolution of footwear from prehistory to today

The shoes they have existed since time immemorial. Probably, yeah one hundred thousand years does humans used leaves and bark to protect their feet when walking, and as time passed, footwear became increasingly widespread. The first certain evidence of the use of shoes dates back to 15,000 years ago. In the warmer regions sandals were used, in the cold areas closed shoes were used, attested for several millennia before Christ. Naturally, the models changed depending on the social position and, since the ancient world, some types of footwear took on the role of status symbol.

Until the 19th century, shoes were a artisanal product, but following the industrial revolution, production was mechanized. Today the world's largest producer is Chinabut also theItaly has an important role in the footwear market.

A premise: why we use shoes

The shoes were introduced primarily for one protective function: they are used to avoid direct contact with the ground and avoid the risk of injury, as well as, in colder regions, to protect the feet from freezing.

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Shoes, however, have also taken on two other functions: one of a practical nature, because they improve grip and balance; a aestheticsbecause they are an important component of clothing.

Shoe models from the 18th to the 20th century (credits Birgit Branvall)
Shoe models from the 18th to the 20th century (credits: Birgit Branvall)

The “invention” of shoes in prehistory

The use of footwear is lost in the mists of time. The first certain evidence dates back to around 15,000 years ago, but the discovery of much older fossil footprints, dating back to over 100,000 years ago, suggests that some type of protection for the feet was already in use at that time. Furthermore, studies by paleoanthropologists have shown that between 40,000 and 25,000 years ago the size of the toes of human beings progressively decreased, which, according to some scholars, was due to the use of footwear.

Of course, we shouldn't think about shoes like the current ones, but about simple soles, made of plant materials and bonded well and better on the foot. The oldest preserved specimens, discovered in Oregon and known as Fort Rock Sandals, date back to approximately 9-10,000 years ago. Later, untanned leather also began to be used to make footwear.

Shoes in the ancient world: Egypt, Greece and Rome

In historical times the use of footwear became more widespread, but the models changed depending on the place. In ancient Egypt, i sandals, which appear on numerous finds of the time. The closed shoes older ones were instead found in Armenia, where in 2008 archaeologists found a leather shoe, called Areni-1 shoe, dating back approximately to 3500 BC. C.

The shoe found in Armenia (credits. R. Pinhasi et al)
The shoe found in Armenia (credits. R. Pinhasi et al)

In the Greek and Roman civilizations the most common shoes were sandals, but there were also different models: among others, i sandals with wooden soles, antecedents of modern clogs; The boots, albeit different from the current ones; the shoes with laces that tightened around the calf. Furthermore, specific footwear was provided for Roman soldiers, the caligaequipped with a heavy sole, from which the nickname of the third Roman emperor derives: Caligula.

The evolution of footwear between the Middle Ages and the modern age

In the Middle Ages, new models emerged, different depending on the population. In the Pyrenees area, for example, the espadrilles, made with woven rope sole and covered with light fabric. In China, however, from the 10th century onwards a cruel practice developed on a large scale (which had already existed previously in some social categories): binding the feet of little girls with very small shoes which, preventing the normal growth of the foot, gave it the shape of a Lotus flower. The custom would only disappear in the twentieth century.

Chinese women's shoes from the late 19th century
Chinese women's shoes from the late 19th century

All over the world, after all, certain models of footwear were one status symbol of the higher social classes. In late Middle Ages and Renaissance Europe, for example, shoes with a long tip even double the foot.

In the 17th century the fashion for high heels, already existing in the field of chivalry in previous centuries. Initially, heels were used by men and only towards the end of the century were they introduced into the women's fashion. In the 18th century the models differed: men used low and stocky heels, women used higher and slender heels.

Louis XIV in high heels
Louis XIV in high heels

Shoes from the industrial revolution to globalization

Until the end of the eighteenth century, footwear production was artisanal. THE shoemakers they were united in special corporations and each pair of shoes was “personalised”. The industrial revolution radically changed production, which became more economical and standardized. The first shoe factories were established in England at the beginning of the nineteenth century and over the course of the century mechanized production spread to various countries. In the nineteenth century it also definitively established itself distinction between right and left shoe, which was already present in some eras of the past, but not continuously because in many periods “unique” models were used. Finally, in the twentieth century, plastic materials and rubber made it possible to produce very different and more comfortable footwear than previous ones.

Shoe factory in the United States, 1872
Shoe factory in the United States, 1872

Today the global market of shoes is worth more than 400 trillion dollars a year. The main manufacturer is the China, which produces approximately 12.6 billion pairs per year and covers 60% of the market. Me too'Italyhowever, holds an important position in the production of shoes: with its 205 million pairs per year, it is the main European producer and occupies a market share worth around fourteen billion euros.

Footwear history

Ron Pinhasi et al, First Direct Evidence of Chalcolithic Footwear from the Near Eastern Highlands, in “Plos One”, 2010,