The History of the Platform Shoe

Today is my first full day off in a long time and I plan on cleaning my entire place and hopefully making it look more ‘apartment-like’. Plus, my sister and her family are visiting me for a day this weekend (so excited!) so I have to make it little kid friendly (:

I have been trying to get myself to wear more heels lately despite being on my feet all day already. Surprisingly, I’m enjoying platforms and 4+ inch heels more than your typical 9-to-5 court heel as they elevate the entire foot, keeping heels and toes on the same level! Whomever thought of inventing sky-high shoes, anyway?

Before flatforms we listened to the Spice Girls and before them, groovy disco beats. And way before that was well-known designer Salvatore Ferregamo. Way before him? The history of the platform shoe is long and storied, and it definitely hasn’t always been about fashion and style!

While many of us may think that platform shoes come straight out of modern pop culture, it is quite the contrary. Platform shoes have a rich and varied history that began way back during ancient Egyptian times. Some of the earliest pictures of shoes were seen on ancient Egyptian tombs dating back to around 4,000 BC. History states that Egyptian butchers would wear a ‘heeled’ shoe to keep their feet away from the gore involved in their job. Later on, in the theaters of Ancient Greece, tragic actors would often sport platform sandals – called cothurnus with wooden or cork soles. The added height was reserved for characters of particular importance or nobility. The practice was then adopted in 200 BC by the Romans who named these platform sandals kothorni

In the 1300s, in the Middle East, wooden stilts were adorned with shell and ivory and worn in public bathhouses to protect against the heated and wet floors. When people walked in them, the platforms made a clapping sound, which gave them the name kabkab. I actually have a pair of these minus the platform – they’re ridiculously uncomfortable and difficult to walk in but I remember always seeing a pair at my grandma’s house in Syria.

During the Middle Ages, both nobility and peasantry alike wore elevated, wooden pattens outdoors, to keep them elevated above all of the muck on the street. Being the middle ages and all, we can imagine just how nasty the streets were at the time and probably wouldn’t have worn anything but these shoes no matter where we were going!

Pattens eventually became more and more elaborate and popular that Franco/Italian noblewoman Catherine d’Medici wore custom-made 2-inch platform heels to her wedding to the Duke of Orleans. The petite duchess’ “platform sandals” came to be known as chopines. Different than other high heels at the time, the chopine elevated the entire foot which made it a bit easier to walk in the shoe. The shoe was also designed to keep a woman’s shoes and dress above the dirt of the street (or water, in the case of Venice), much like the pattens.

Chopines were popularly worn in Venice by both courtesans and patrician women and allowed a woman to literally and figuratively tower over others, to define her prominence. During the Renaissance, chopines became an article of women’s fashion and were made increasingly taller, some being over 20 inches in height! At the time, Shakespeare joked about the extreme height of the chopines in style in his day by using the word ‘altitude’ (Hamlet 2.2). In the 15th century, chopines also became a popular style in Spain; so popular that the larger part of the nation’s cork supplies went towards the production of the shoes!

In 1670, an Act of Parliament outlawed many paraphernalia for married women, including makeup, artificial teeth, false hair, bolstered hips, and of course, platform shoes. The punishment resulted in divorce, torture, and even execution. How dare they!?

This all turned around in the 1700s when the Peking Opera became popularized in China. Male actors would wear silk platform boots and as in the case of the Greek thespians, the higher the sole, the more acclaimed the person.

The first instance of the platform shoe returning to modern days in the West was Salvatore Ferragamo’s fashion-forward cork sandal. The rainbow-colored heel is still considered modern today – cool!

While plaform shoes came into modern existence during the 30s and 40s, they did not become a fashion sensation until the seventies. At first, the shoe was popular for young women, but once disco reigned, platform shoes became the must-have accesory of any stylish young man as well. Never ones to let other outshine them on the dance floor, some platform-lovers even decorated their pairs with a fake aquarium!

And then came the nineties where the platform shoe made an awkward comeback in the form of a sneaker. First hitting the runway at a Vivienne Westwood show, they became popularized by international girl group sensation, the Spice Girls. Platform sneakers became a go-to, and I can’t deny I didn’t own a pair!

Most women today own some version of a platform shoe, some of crazy heights and bizarre adornments while others in a classic 9-to-5 style. Whether it’s a flatform, a hidden rise in a pump, or a heel reaching massive height a la Alexander McQueen stunners, the platform shoe has become a true fashion staple for modern, fashion-forward ladies.

 I suspect they will continue to give women that extra vertical boost both literally and figuratively – hey, they definitely make me more confident!

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