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Wednesday Morning Shoe Report

So, a fan of the Wednesday Morning Shoe Report—Cameron Kippen, a podologist and shoe historian living in Perth, Western Australia—dropped me a line to let me know about his own work. “My area of research,” he wrote, “is the psycho-social and psycho-sexual aspects of shoe design and STDs in the Middle Ages.” Of course I was intrigued. Having spent some time on Kippen’s website, I’m still not sure what the venereal disease angle is, but his site certainly has a lot of information about feet and the history of shoes. There is, as you might guess from Kippen’s introduction, a focus on the sexy throughout the site.

For example, Greek prostitutes were apparently the first women to realize that elevated shoes give a gal a shimmy when she walks, but men have also exploited the suggestive possibilities of footwear. For instance, there was the poulaine:

Satan’s Claw
By the High Middle Ages… [m]en began to wear long toed shoes called pigaches or poulaines. The style became an instant success and the fashion lasted over three hundred years before it was eventually legislated against. Soon extensions became longer and longer until they were so long they made walking almost impossible. Young bucks started to stuff wool and moss in the extensions to keep them erect. So blatantly phallic and long, soon the style included attachments to the knee with a chain to prevent tripping. A popular vulgarity was to paint the extensions flesh coloured, allowing them to flap with lifelike mobility.
Small bells were often attached to the end of the poulaine to indicate the wearer was a willing partner in sexual frolic… Sometimes worn by curling the toes, the poulaine was the forerunner to the codpiece… Youths were chastised for standing on the street corners waggling their toe suggestively as the young ladies walked by…

The Church called the poulaine Satan’s Claw and blamed it for the Black Death of 1347. Ultimately, the size of a man’s shoe was mandated by sumptuary laws. “Between 1327 and 1377, during the reign of Edward III (1312-1377), pointed toes were prohibited to all who did not have an income of at least forty pounds a year… [P]ikes could not be more than six inches long for a plain commoner, twelve inches for a landowner (bourgeois), Knights, one and a half feet, twenty-four inches for a baron, and princes could wear them as long as they liked.” Later, under the reign of Queen Mary, sumptuary laws limited the breadth of a person’s shoes, suggesting—to me, anyway—that some cobbler somewhere had figured out that girth is actually more important than length.

The true high-heel—as opposed to the platform shoe—was, according to Kippen, pioneered by Catherine de Medici, who wore them to her royal wedding in 1533. This great moment in fashion launches Kippen into a disquisition on the whole history of the high-heel right up to the present—including the introduction of toe cleavage—and from there he heads straight into the Victorian fantasy that women didn’t actually have legs to full-on foot fetish.

This website also offers articles on a variety of other shoe-related topics, including essays on foot superstitions and biblical feet.

September 8, 2004 | Permalink

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