If the shoe fits

Walking in the steps of history

by Peggy Roberts

It wasn’t my clothes or makeup that worried me as I walked toward the stranger I was about to interview.

It was my shoes.

Andrea Vianello

Well-worn, comfortable, but definitely not styling, those shoes I had forgotten to change weren’t fit for Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters – let alone for the scrutiny of history professor Andrea Vianello who had launched his professional career analyzing the footwear of nobility.

And after I’d researched his talent for reading the past from studying shoes, I was afraid my Easy Spirits would communicate faster to him than a crystal ball to a medium.

There’s something about shoes that has over the years grabbed the attention and sensibilities of designers, fashion plates and even the governments that once regulated their height and length. That something inadvertently captured Dr. Vianello at the beginning of his career, as well.

Following the advice of his college professor in his native Venice, Italy, he selected the guild of shoemakers for the subject of his college dissertation, immersing himself in the large collection of documents in the research archives. The undergraduate dissertation was published as a book, and Vianello almost by accident became an expert on shoes. “I stumbled upon shoes,” he says with a smile.

But, for the professor who admits to caring more about his shoes than his clothes, his preoccupation with historical footwear is more than leather-deep.

It’s not really about the shoes themselves but about their enduring footprints through the centuries that enables historians like Vianello to use them and other accessories to track the nuances, morés and habits of a culture years later.

For example, the sole of the platform shoe, or chopine, worn in Italy during the late Renaissance grew to such outrageous heights (up to 20 inches!) that women were forced to steady themselves while walking by leaning on their servants’ heads. When the shoes first became the fashion, a few extra inches distinguished the prostitute from the prosperous matron, or from the rising middle class that had started to compete with the nobles. But as time passed, the distinction became less clear.

In a recent book on the history of shoes from sandals to sneakers, Vianello’s contributing article made a convincing argument about the impropriety of a certain Renaissance woman in a period painting – based on her shoes. The article claimed that shoes worn by prostitutes and by noble women, though similar, were in fact of slightly different heights and designs.

Looking to the future, Vianello doubts historians 500 years from now will find it any easier to decode today’s fashion and societal symbols than it is for him and others to unravel those of the past. Because certain material objects, like tattoos or nose rings, represent concepts and characterizations instinctively understood by our culture today, we may fail to document those ephemeral meanings for future generations, forcing them to search our movies, fashion magazines and television shows for clues.

The results could be as unreal as reality TV, I thought as I prepared to leave the interview. But not before a last glance back, just to make sure Dr. Vianello wasn’t “reading” my shoes.

“Objective” history

Woman's platform shoes, 1590-1610

Photograph ©2008 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Woman’s platform shoes (or chopines)
Italian (Venice), 1590–1610
Tooled leather over wood, with metallic braid and silk tassels
30.2 x 16.2 x 24 cm (11 7/8 x 6 3/8 x 9 7/16 in.)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The Elizabeth Day McCormick Collection, 44.556a-b

Renaissance platform shoes were made of wood, but hollowed out to avoid excess weight. Feet were considered lowly and preachers warned that it was vain to pay them attention.

“Objects not only have a history, they have a way of talking if you are listening,” says history professor Andrea Vianello.

Material objects from an earlier society, such as shoes, may be deciphered today through careful study of surviving paintings, artwork, literary works, documents – and even etiquette books or religious sermons. In fact, when it comes to historical research, examining material objects for cultural clues is a key pursuit, even if the interpretation isn’t absolute.

According to Vianello, who has spent countless hours in Venetian archives, societal uniforms’ were rigidly defined in the Renaissance. Much more than today, one’s group identity or socio-economic status was indicated by clothing and shoes. Entire populations were asked to identify themselves by their clothing. Jews wore yellow hats, for example, and high-class courtesans or mistresses wore yellow kerchiefs and shoes of a certain height.

“People would try to jump from one class to another by changing their accessories,” Vianello says. The government tried to control that, and could also intervene by declaring the height of a shoe was too high for pregnant women, or too low if it wanted to regulate the movement of women by keeping them perched higher.

In the era from the 14th to the 17th century, there were very few kinds of shoes, so what they could imply was more narrowly defined. During one period, shoes were long and pointy, and the longer the shoe, the more status it conveyed. Some were so long, the points had to be tied to the leg.

For the most part, societal dictates meant that females never showed their feet, unless they were a mistress or prostitute. However, some women started to push the envelope, wanting to expose their toes. And therein lies the challenge for those who seek an accurate account of the past. As societies evolve, so do the things that define them.
– Charmaine Daniels and Peggy Roberts