Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A brief history of sandals

The origin of sandals is pre-history and extends long before today’s plastic flip flops. Sandals have beautified feet since the beginning of civilization and were worn to adorn, complement status, and demonstrate station. Unlike ‘daggy thongs,’ sandals were restricted to only the few and have been around for at least 10,000 years. They coincide with the Neolithic Age (or New Stone Age) and although speculative footprints indicate a presence before this, absence of archeological evidence makes it impossible to date when shoes started to be worn. The wide geographical locations (including America, China, Egypt and Mesopotamia) support footwear was a spontaneous innovation made from available resources and contemporary with the development of basketry. For your delectation I intend to outline a brief history of sandals and how, in the spirit of zeitgeist, they reflect the latest technology and influence historical events.
The oldest sandals

The oldest known shoes were discovered in Fort Rock Cave, Oregon (1938). Made from woven sagebrush bark these have been radio-carbon dated to at least, 10,000 years old. A simple platform (made from woven fabric) with toe and heel attachments (thongs) woven from rope. Longer than the foot, the front part was folded in a pocket to protect the toes and the sandal strapped to the foot with a thong. Rabbit fur and pine needles were sometimes added for comfort. More recent finds dated to 7,500-year-old demonstrate an increase range of styles including pointed and rounded toes with many incorporating decorative flourishes. Many prehistoric shoes had obvious signs of repair. The first inclusion of animal hides dates to 6500 years ago with the discovery of the Iceman. Many believe skins held magical properties to our ancestors and were worn to capture admirable elements such as swiftness and bravery. Clothing continued to distinguish rank and status. Examples of early Australian sandals are rare not least because few indigenous tribes were thought to wear them. Where examples do exist, (some tribes in the Northern Territory and adjoining desert country) these appear to be of similar style to New Stone Age sandals.

The Cradle of Civilization

Footwear became more evident by the beginning of the Cradle of Civilization (Sumeria, circa 4th millennium BCE). Still reserved for the privileged, Sumerians were noted artisans and used animal skins. Sandals with a turned up toe (circa 3000 BCE) were worn by the aristocracy with the earliest known depictions seen on the Assyrian, Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III (circa 841 BCE). Bending back toes was thought to be a practical innovation to assist with walking. Other styles included elevated sandals (as in wedged heels) crafted in fabric or soft leather and adorned with jewelry. The seafaring Phoenicians (1550 BCE to 300 BCE) ensured fashionable dyed footwear spread throughout the known world i.e. Ancient Egypt (3200 BCE – 343 BCE), India (2800 BCE - 1500 BCE) and China). Babylonians (1696 – 1654 BCE) preferred perfumed sandals made from fine kid leathers, and dyed red. Footwear was also decorated with trinkets and bling. The Persians (600BCE) wore exotic wooden platform sandals (paduka) with a toe separator between the first and second toe. Sandals were intricately inlaid with pearl and other semi precious stones and commonly worn in bath houses and harems. Persian priests wore well crafted sandals and Persian soldiers wore sandals with brass leg protectors (greaves). It is widely held belief the armies of Alexander the Great (356 - 323 BCE) who conquered half the world, went barefoot. Generally shoes were considered to represent the material world and unclean. They were customarily removed in the presence of superiors and on holy ground.

The Greeks

Ancient Greeks adapted footwear for every type of activity, with emphasis on beauty, elegance, and refinement. Sandals were extravagantly decorated with rich ornamentation although sumptuary laws did at times prevent Greek women from wearing more than three articles of clothing. Hence most went barefoot although Aphrodite was often depicted naked except for a pair of sandals. Height and colour remained clear indications of social class with strap and thong arrangements important to station. Courtesans wore soft leather footwear dyed white, green, lemon or yellow and betrothed girls and young brides wore sandals made from dyed white leather. By the time of Homer (1000-700 BCE), the Krepis (soldier’s shoe) was a thong with ankle strapping and a tongue (or linula over the instep). These were adapted for woman and lady's Krepis were brightly coloured, anklet sandal often preferred by women of ill repute (or salmakides). Early sexworkers caught the attention of their clients with a "clack" sound made when wooden thongs hit the street cobbles. Some adopted the Mediterranean custom of carving “Follow Me,” on the undersurface of the soles. Philosophers and comic actors wore baxeae, i.e. sandals made from willow leaves, twigs, or fibres. Tragic actors, horsemen, hunters, and men of rank and authority were platform sandals (Kothormos /cothurnus) made with layers of cork. In Greek mythology sandals held deeper significance and were generally thought to separate mortals from the Underworld (Hell). Consequently shoe adornments with amulets or cosmetikos, became popular. A carved tongue or lingual (free spirit), visibly confirmed a free person or citizen.

The Egyptians

The earliest depiction of Egyptian sandals dates to 5000 ya. Sandals were carried by servants when superiors were engaged in official duties. No one is sure of the significance of this. Sandal making became well established and was depicted in the Tomb of Rekhmire (1550-c. 1292 BCE) at the Necropolis of Thebes. The process was broken into different components and sandals were made with a thicker outsole and softer thinner insole. The layers were stitched with waxed threads by specific tools many of which still exist today. Artisans tanned animal hides with vegetable and mineral oils which turned the leather white. Dying white leather achieved rich colours. The process of making sumptuous costume remained costly ensuring shoes were the preserve of the privileged. Pharaohs wore peaked toed sandals similar to the Assyrians (1200 BCE). By 1300 BCE, shoes became more common and going bare foot was considered déclassé. Ordinary people wore sandals made from braided papyrus. The Egyptians were the first to modified shoe styles to different occupations e.g. butchers. By 5th c BCE, Egyptian priests were required to wear papyrus sandals. Like other from antiquity Egyptians drew faces of their enemies on their sandals so they could stand on them. In the tomb of the boy king, Tutankhamen (1292 BCE) a large collection of shoes and sandals were found. These were made from a variety of materials and included gold, vegetable fibre, birch bark, leather, all decorated with gemstones. Some sandals had obvious alterations thought to accommodate Tutankhamen’s foot deformities. In other tombs such as the tradesmen tombs at Deir-el-Medineh (19th Dynasty 1298 to 1187 BCE), there were several pairs of funereal sandals made from glass and faience (earthenware). Generally Queens of the Nile were admired for their bejeweled footwear. The section of the sandal where toe thongs were attached was called 'nkh”. Many experts believe the Ankh (symbol for life) represents a flattened thong.

Biblical Sandals

There are no surviving artifacts or descriptions of Judean shoes from the period of the early Bible. Hebrews learned to prepare animal hides when they were captured by the Egyptians (circa 13th century BCE). They took this trade with them to the Promised Land and perhaps the first actual shoe miracle was the Hebrew tribes survived the long journey wearing shoes that never wore out.

"And I have led you forty years in the wilderness. Your clothes are not waxen old upon you, and thy shoe is not waxen old upon thy foot." (Deut. 29:5)

It is thought Biblical sandals were either made of leather or wooden footboards held to the foot with finer leather thongs. Traditional Jewish laws; or Torah, regulated Hebrew life including how to put on and take off sandals, i.e. right first and always tied from the left. Clothing became a clear indication of identity and conscious mark of reverence. In the Book of Judith, she meets and bowls over the revered Assyrian general, Holofernes. So impressed is he with her beauty and in particular the richness of her feet and sandals which “ravished his eyes," he plans to seduce her. The tables are turned when Judith waits for him to fall into a drunken sleep and cuts his head off with his own sword. Subsequently her sexualized femininity combined with masculine aggression inspired many artists to paint her. The lyric in the Song of Song (circa 900 BCE) confirms sandals were worn by the high born.

"How beautiful your sandaled feet, O prince's daughter! Your graceful legs are like jewels, the work of a craftsman's hands.” (Song of Songs 7:1).

In Biblical Times shoes became associated with sensuousness, comfort, luxury and pleasure and the thought of wearing shabby or worn out shoes was absurd. By the 8th century BCE elders of Jerusalem were concerned at young Hebrew women many of whom were wearing elevated sandals, decorated with serpents. Often a sweet-heart's name and likeness was engraved on a metal plate was placed under the heel, so that it left an imprint on the ground wherever they went.

“Moreover, the LORD said, “Because the daughters of Zion are proud and walk with heads held high and seductive eyes, And go along with mincing steps And tinkle the bangles on their feet, Therefore the Lord will afflict the scalp of the daughters of Zion with scabs, And the LORD will make their foreheads bare.” (Isaiah 3 16-20). (139)

By the time of the New Testament, walking was the primary means of travel and the Disciples were encouraged to protect their feet when called upon to spread the gospel. They were cautioned against wearing anything other than humble sandals, however lest they offended potential converts.

"I am sending you like lambs among wolves. Take neither purse nor pack, nor sandals." (Luke 10:1-16).

By the Middle Ages priests occupied an important position in ancient societies and performed their offices, barefoot. However the hierarchy of the newly formed church indulged themselves in sumptuous dress. Under "Sovereign's law," promulgated by Charlemagne (742-814 AD), clerics were required to wear sandals when celebrating mass. Franciscan monks wore wooden sandals devoid of fashion and symbolism as a visible sign of their inner humility and purity. Pilgrims often went barefoot, or put a stone in their shoe to do penance for their sins.

The Holy Prophet, Muhammad (570 – 632)

Heregarded shoes as impure and commanded the faithful remove all dirt from their sandals prior to praying. In pragmatic style it became easier to remove shoes. Frequent prayer (and shoe removal) ensured babouche slippers became the preferred footwear of Muslims. Because the Moorish Empire dwarfed the Roman Empire and chronologically flowed into the Middle Ages their influence on costume was unsurpassed. Soft and sumptuous Moroccan leathers made Cordova in Spain the centre for quality leather which began to influence the costume of the occidental courts.

The Romans

Greece was conquered in 146 BCE but Greek styles continued to influence Roman clothing. After the Bronze Age Etruscans (800 – 264 BCE), the Romans stiffened their sandals with tacks to secure the sole to the upper. The more robust footwear was further strengthened with hobnails (or clavata). These were adapted by the army and Caligula was worn by all ranks up to and including, centurions. Foot soldiers could travel greater distances which is one credible reason why the Roman Empire grew so big. The margins were so far apart from the capital supply from Mother Rome was impractical and local craftsmen were trained in the art of Roman sandal making. Provincial footwear styles, like Galoshes from Gaul were adapted. Many styles of footwear were developed and shoes with a tongue (linula) were restricted to free citizens of Rome.

Colour continued to distinguish social status with red the prerogative of the Emperor. Julius Caesar reserved red and purple for himself and his sons. During the luxurious days of the late Roman Empire, sandals were decorated with gold and precious stones. Returning heroes replaced bronze nails, with gold or silver tacks. When fancy footwear became too ostentatious laws were passed to ban expensive bling.

Claudius II /Nero (AD 37-68) wore silver soled shoes and his wife Poppaea, had sandals made from poured gold with straps encrusted with rare stones. Nero’s indulgencies brought the empire to the brink of bankruptcy. To save the day it was decreed all gold and silver coins be returned to the treasury to be replaced with base metal currency. Citizens began hoarding and shoemakers were quick to cash in offering footwear for real money. Shoe making became clandestine with expensive footwear encrusted with diamonds and precious metals sold under the counter and often at night. Many early Christian converts became sandal makers earning their living at night and spreading the gospels during the day.

Caches of Roman sandals found in the UK reveal people of two millennium past had the same feet and foot problems as we do, today. Emperor Heliogabalus (AD 218-222) liked his shoes decorated with diamonds and other precious stones engraved by the finest artists. He took great exception to patricians wearing ornamented shoes and tried unsuccessfully to stop the fashion. Emperor Lucius Domitius Aurelianus (AD 270 - 275) was more concerned about men’s shoes and forbade them from wearing red, yellow and green shoes. He did however relent and allowed patricians to choose materials and colours freely.

After the fall of the Roman Empire sandal making was almost lost to Europe and kept alive only with pockets of craftsmen scattered on the perimeters of the old Empire. During the Middle Ages in Occidental Society sandals were rarely worn but during the 15c century they made an appearance as disguised orthopaedic sandals around the time of Henry VIII. A century later as shoes became more ornate then the wooden sandals were modified to protect delicate footwear and worn as overshoes or pattens.


It is impossible to know the true origins of shoes because costume exchange was common place along the Spice and Silk routes. Archetypal sandals of India and the Far East were made of straw but Mendicants (beggars), holy men (sadhu) and gurus wore paduka (wooden sandals) which stood off the ground with two narrow stilts. Paduka (circa 3000 BCE), were cut roughly in the shape of a footprint (or fish as the symbol of fertility) and held next to the foot with a stub (knob) between the big and second toes. Finer toe knob sandals were worn by the rich and made from teak, ebony and sandalwood. These were intricately inlaid with ivory or wire. Sometimes bells adorned the sandals of a bride formed part of a bride's trousseau. A Brahmin prayer.

"Forgive me Mother Earth the sin of injury, the violence I do, by placing my feet upon you this morning."

In rural areas handcrafted sandals (Chappals) were made from processed leather (buffalo, goat or cow) from circa 3000 BCE, but after the Muslim conquest of India in the 11c, the babouche (slippers) with turned up toes became prevalent.


In Japan by the 1st century, Zori (Tatami Sandals), or flat bottomed sandals, were made of straw with a leather thong between the first and second toes. These were worn with tabi, a white cotton foot covering (like socks) with a split toe, between the big toe and the other four toes for the sandal thong. Tabi were the only foot coverings traditionally permitted on the tatami mat-covered floors inside Japanese houses. Double-soled zori, (symbolic of the impending union) were often given as an engagement gifts from future groom to his bride. By the 17th century during the Edo period (1603-1867), getas became fashionable. These were wooden (cryptomeria) platforms sandal held to the feet with a flexible thong (sometimes rope or a black velveteen fabric) and worn with a woven tatami insole for extra comfort. Getas are worn barefoot and were produced during the Meiji period (1868-1912) which made them more economically accessible to everyone. Lacquer was used to decorate them. During the feudal era of Japan (12th and 19th centuries), samurai class and foot soldiers (ashigaru) wore Waraji. The sole of the Waraji (Japan) was woven and tied according to status. Replace pairs were carried around their waist and the superstitious left straw sandals as an offering in prayer for safety before starting a long journey.

China, Korea and the Far East

Generally peasant sandals were made of woven rice straw. Chinese sandals were functional and often embellished with knotting but by comparison to Korean straw sandals (Jipsin), fairly crude. Other parts of the Far East wore variations on the wooden thong and these are considered unique to these regions. In Singapore the thong attachment is a strap across the top of the foot which follows the metatarsal heads. Known as the Singapore Slide and the design later became incorporated into the Scholl Exercise Sandal. In the Philippines the wooden platform were decorated with intricate and ornate carvings. During the Second World War US troops posted to the Pacific took wooden thongs home as souvenirs and many believe this was why sandals became popular in the US after the war.

Spain and South America

Espadrilles (made from espardeña or esparto grass) were initially confined to Southern France, Spain and Portugal. But by the 15th century the Conquistadors took them to South America there they became incorporated with local native craft and remnants are still seen in the Havaiana (Brazil) and Huaraches (Columbia and Mexico). After the invention of vulcanized rubber by Charles Goodyear (1844), rubber soled thongs began to appear. Sandal made with old tyres became popular in the 30s and both espadrilles and huarache sandals were especially favoured by bohemians and surfers in North America.

20th Century Sandal Renaissance

Sandals made a remarkable fashion comeback in the early 20th Century. The popularity of silent cinema ensured millions saw the new biblical epics from Hollywood. Keen to have authentic costume master shoe makers like Salvatore Ferragamo made thousands of sandals for the cast. The absence of actual historical examples meant designs were based on Victorian theatrical designs. Much were inaccurate but when more and more leading actresses wanted to wear their ‘biblical sandals’ off set, their fans were keen to be seen in the same trendy sandals. The trend increased as hemlines rose and feet became sexy. Ferragamo introduced the wedge heel and metal arch supports to allow heeled shoes to be made without toe caps. The Peekaboo style (or toe cleavage) was all the rage with the introduction of colourful nail varnish. By the Talkies, heeled sandals were synonymous with pin up girls. On screen heeled sandals did for women what the cowboy hat did for men. At a glance the audience instantly knew the Belle from the Jezebel. Wartime shortages saw designers experiment with non-traditional materials coming up with many innovations including cork wedges and bikini sandals with plastic thongs. By the early fifties, the introduction of the stiletto meant no fashion conscious female foot could go without a pair of back less sandals exposing more foot flesh than had ever been seen. Thongs became the string bikini of the shoe world.

Post World War II

After the Second World War the new plastics industry help build up the Asian economies. Plastic sandals were mass produced cheaply in Japan and became a stable post war manufacturing industry especially. By the fifties new molding techniques for rubber and plastic were introduced in Taiwan and elsewhere which allowed cheaper shoes to be turned out in their millions. The introduction of the package tour to Mediterranean resorts in the 60s created a demand among Europeans for plastic sand shoes. Now every suitcase contained flip flops for the family.

Australia and New Zealand

In Australia thongs are not indigenous nor were they given as prison issue to the early settlers. As footwear they were totally unsuited to the Bush or Goldfields, and unlikely to have been attractive to a barefoot culture which prevailed for decades. In the 50s thongs became popular shoes among Australians. In 1956, the Melbourne Olympics were the first to be televised and the global village caught sight of the Japanese swimmers wearing getas (traditional sandals). John Cowie was a Hong Kong based shoe manufacturer who took advantage of the slip-on sandals and started to mass produce plastic thongs. In turn New Zealander, Maurice Yock took the idea to New Zealand and patented rubber thongs calling them Jandals (a combination of Japan and Sandal) in 1957. New Zealand sales rocketed and soon after a demand for the casual sandals in Australia followed. Many people believed they were wearing similar sandals to those seen at the Melbourne Olympics. The normal construction of the plastic thong has the thong attachment riveted to the plastic base and this is called a 'single plugger' thong. Due to a fault in the production a double rivet was made and the thongs were christened "double pluggers."

Thong are left over footsoles. They are a part of their owners, More human and personal Than shirts or underpants. Thongs know the feel of the ground: They are like people’s footprints left lying around. Colin Thiele

Terrorism, Vegetarianism and Global Warming

Post September 11, the fear of terrorism and need for greater security of a traveling public has necessitated removing shoes at security check points. No self respecting fashionista wanted to divest complex shoes in public when casual slip-ons would suffice. Hence the fashion for casual footwear such as thongs, flip flops, and Havaiana blossomed. Changes in climate and popular preference for non-animal products have facilitated demand for new polymers (a bi—product of the Space Industry). The existence of new materials has made today’s thongs more robust than ever offer.