Walking the world: 9 spectacular shoes

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Geisha Girls (1946-03) by Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

More than an accessory

The history of human development shows that the importance of protecting feet has always been recognized. In fact, the primary aim of footwear was to safeguard the feet from hot, cold and wet environments, as well as from discomfort. Besides that, footwear can tell a lot more: shoes are active witnesses of the evolution of fashion and have deep cultural meanings. 

The ( Nati ) Euro Greek Ancient. Incl Masks.LIFE Photo Collection

Ancient Roman sandal

The sandals are believed to be the first rigid shoes crafted and they were the typical footwear worn by ancient Romans. They were made of leather (usually with only one piece of leather) and the main feature was that there was no distinction between the right and the left shoe, as they were perfectly adapted to the shape of the feet using leather shoelaces.

Ancient Roman footwear, Ethnic footwear (Between the Repubblic and the Imperial Roman period)Museo della Calzatura di Villa Foscarini Rossi

Ancient Roman sandals

Ancient Romans considered shoemaking (called "ars sutoria") as a very important craft.

Among Ancient Romans, only some people could afford shoes, whose colour and decoration were different on the basis of the social class.

By Eliot ElisofonLIFE Photo Collection

Geta sandal

The Geta sandals are a typical 10th century Japanese footwear, although they are in vogue still today. The sandal is a rectangular wooden sole with two wooden supports and a strap between the big toe and the second one. The importance of feet was first stated by Oriental cultures as they observed that, within feet, there are the final nerve endings of vital organs. The shape of these shoes reflects also the influence of the Japanese religion Shinto, that believes in reincarnation: the wooden supports are thought to not interfere with the ground and all kinds of living beings on it.  

Japanese Geta, Ethnic footwear (19th century)Museo della Calzatura di Villa Foscarini Rossi

Geta sandal
19th century

If you look carefully to this example of Geta sandals, joining right and left you can see a dragon.

The beautiful decoration on the surface is also functional, since it produces, together with the lace, a feeling of wellness.

Typ. Asia. Turkey. (1860)LIFE Photo Collection

Kub Kab

Kub Kab are particular wooden shoes from the Middle-East, thought to be one of the first examples of heels in the history of fashion. The name Kub Kab comes from the sound produced while walking. Perhaps, this type of footwear was originally worn to ride horses, in the hamam (Turkish bath), or in the butchery (in order to avoid the contact with the infected blood on the ground).  

Kab-Kab, Ethnic footwear (16th century)Museo della Calzatura di Villa Foscarini Rossi

Kub Kab
16th century

These shoes were imported in Venice by Marco Polo during the 15th century. They were called "calcagnetti" and worn by noblewomen to show their high social status. In Venice these ancient wedges reached 50 cm height and so noblewomen were forced to walk helped by pages!

Kub Kab spread also in Europe, where they were known as "chopine". Shakespeare mentioned them in the Hamlet saying "...By'r lady, your ladyship is nearer to heaven than when I saw you last, by the altitude of a chopine..."

Moslems & Hindus In India (1946) by Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection


Padukas are a kind of footwear typically worn by Indians. Padukas are also known as “The Guru’s sandals”, since they are linked to the Hindu religion and mostly worn by monks or at religious ceremonies. They were usually made of wood, ivory, silver, jade, brass and gold. 

Oriental sandal, Ethnic footwear (19th century)Museo della Calzatura di Villa Foscarini Rossi

19th century
Padukas are very uncomfortable sandals, as they feature a knob that slips between the first toe and the second one.

Nevertheless, they have a deep and ancient spiritual meaning. Indeed, the first references linked to Hindu religion can be found in the Indian epic poem Rāmāyaṇa.

By Francis MillerLIFE Photo Collection

American moccasins

Moccasins were the most widespread type of footwear worn by Native Americans. Originally, the moccasins were created only by the women of the tribe, using buffalo, deer or moose leather. For wintertimes, they could be lined with hairs. The type of decoration of the upper differed from tribe to tribe; this enabled American Indians to distinguish enemies from friends just looking at their shoes! 

American mocassin, Ethnic footwear (16th century)Museo della Calzatura di Villa Foscarini Rossi

American mocassins
16th century
North America

The word "moccasin" comes from Algonquian dialects, meaning "soft-bottomed shoes". Interestingly, there was no distinction between right and left shoe or between women's and men's ones.

This example is decorated with glass beads, introduced in North America by the Spanish explorers from the 15th century, although they have been employed for moccasins only from the 19th century. Before the introduction of beadworks, moccasins were usually decorated with dyed bird feathers or porcupine's quills.

Clo Euro 1860 Juvenile 64 (1860)LIFE Photo Collection

Turkish slipper sandal

Slippers are a typical Turkish footwear. These shoes became very popular all over Europe, where the design was adapted to Western styles. In England, Italy, France and Germany, slippers were usually worn as evening shoes and featured metal embroideries, sequins and pearls. 

Slipper, Ethnic footwear (19th century)Museo della Calzatura di Villa Foscarini Rossi

Slipper sandal
19th century

This type of footwear became very popular in Venice too.

LIFE Photo Collection

San Zun Jin Lian 

San Zun Jin Lian are the Chinese footwear generally known as lotus hooks, golden lilies and golden lotus. The ancient story of this shoe goes back to the 10th century, at the time of the ruler Li Yu. The legend says that his favourite consort bounded her feet in a dance that made him fall in love with her. Little by little, this trend became widespread in China. 

Lotus Shoe, Ethnic footwear (19th century)Museo della Calzatura di Villa Foscarini Rossi

Lotus shoe
19th century

A foot bounded very well, as a "golden lotus", measured 5 inches (13 centimetres).

It is thought that this footwear were actually used to enable men to control women. Indeed, because of this painful foot-binding, women were not able to move freely. This custom was first banned in 1912 by the new Republic of China, and it finally died out in the 1930s.

By Carl MydansLIFE Photo Collection


Finnish masculine and feminine shoe belonging to the 20th century, made in birch bark, called "Karelia". Since the birch is widespread in Norway, Sweden, and Finland, its bark is also used for the production of shoes and boots. Up till the end of the 19th century, women wore Karelia daily with cloth foot wraps; sometimes this footwear were used as overshoes to protect some more expensive leather shoes.

Karelia, Ethnic footwear (20th century)Museo della Calzatura di Villa Foscarini Rossi

20th century

The name "Karelia" derives from the name of a territory between Finland and Russia.

Typ. Asia Syria LebanonLIFE Photo Collection


Juttis are the typical footewear from Pakistan and India. They are made of leather, fabric and coloured embroideries. “Jooti” is actually a generic term of many different types of slip on shoes characterized by rising high to the Achilles tendon in the back and covering the toes with a M-shaped embroideried upper. In Jodhpur (India) there is a street where the majority of businesses consists on producing shoes. All the family is involved in the production of the shoes: usually women embroider the uppers while men assemble the shoes.

East Europe footwear, Ethnic footwear (20th century)Museo della Calzatura di Villa Foscarini Rossi

20th century
Central Asia

Juttis can feature embroidered uppers of velvet lined with leather. The embroideries are obtained using a paper design as guide, that is pasted on to the leather.

The origin of the curved toe goes back to the 12th century, when the length was considered proportional to the richeness of the person wearing it.

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