Until the end of the 18th century in Europe, clogs were what the majority of people wore on their feet. The word “clog” has been in use in English since 1400. At first it meant simply a “lump of wood”. It only later came to mean a “shoe carved out of a lump of wood”. In Scotland, the word is still used in its original sense, as in “Yule clog”, the large piece of wood that burns through the Christmas season.
The classic medieval pointy shoe was called a poulaine (meaning Polish) or a cracowe after the Polish city of Kraków, where they had become fashionable in the 14th century.
At the height of their popularity, some had toes 18in (45cm) long, with the tips attached to a chain that enabled the wearer to lift them and avoid falling over.
They were regularly denounced as tokens of vanity by the Church and eventually a backlash took place that saw them replaced with a broad-toed shoe called a “duck’s bill”. For a while, toe width, rather than length, became the fashion.
Platform shoes used to be a practical way to keep clear of dirt. They became a fashion in 14th-century Venice, where they were called chopines and gradually got higher and higher – some had wooden platforms measuring 30in (77cm), often ornately carved. By the mid-15th century, most of the cork produced in Spain went into the production of chopines. A wearer needed help from two servants to walk, so wearing them was a way to show off high status.
The ubiquitous trainer has only been around since 1868, when they were sold as “croquet sandals”, a luxury for the mallet-wielding rich. Ninety per cent of the people who buy sports shoes now buy them for casual wear, rather than for sport.
The 48 ballerinas of Britain’s Royal Ballet wear out 3,500 pairs of ballet slippers a year. A dancer gets through three or four pairs a week. Ballet shoes are as individual as false teeth. Even for a beginner, they are available in half sizes and four different width fittings. Professionals have their shoes individually made to their own specifications.
The shoes are made of canvas, calico, papier-mâché and thick brown glue, baked in an oven for 14 hours to harden the toe-blocks and then covered in satin. Freed of London makes 40 per cent of the world’s ballet shoes, producing 2,400 pairs a day.
When the great Swedish-Italian ballerina Marie Taglioni made her final appearance at St Petersburg in 1842, a group of admirers paid 200 roubles for a pair of her shoes, cooked them and ate them in a special sauce.
There is an anecdote about the American writer Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) demonstrating his power of concision by writing a short story in six words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
However, the story doesn’t have a reliable source that dates back beyond 1996, when John de Groot’s play Papa has the writer deliver these lines.