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In the early modern period, one's social and economic status could be quickly inferred through footwear. Due to the level of craftsmanship required, and the price of the materials, a new pair of shoes would only be available to the highest-ranking members of society.

Lotus Shoe

Lotus Shoe 2002

Lisa Milroy (b.1959)

Staffordshire Museum & Art Collection

During the 1300s, 'poulaines' became popular with male nobility. These were a low-cut, flat-soled, slip-on shoe with a pronounced, pointed toe. One might think of them as a medieval version of the 1950s winklepicker. Poulaines were also known as a 'crackows' (a reference to the Polish capital of Krakow) due to the fact they were first seen on the nobles visiting Anne of Bohemia, the Polish wife of Richard II.

Reconstruction of Medieval Mural Painting, King with a Septre Casket and Attendants

Reconstruction of Medieval Mural Painting, King with a Septre Casket and Attendants c.1927

Ernest William Tristram (1882–1952)

Parliamentary Art Collection

A selection of different styles can be seen in this reconstruction of a 1350 mural at St Stephen's Chapel. The length of the toes (known as the 'pikes') indicated that the owner was a member of the leisure class: their impracticality would clearly prevent any form of manual labour. As the trend grew more outlandish, with toes reaching up to 24-inches long, the tips of the poulaines were stuffed with moss, wool, or hair to keep them sturdy. Due to their phallic connotations – notably their association with men equating the length of the toes with their professed 'masculinity' – conservative society saw them as sinful, with the Church condemning them as the 'devil's fingers'. In 1463, a law was passed to limit their size: no shoes were allowed pikes longer than two inches.

The fashion of the medieval period was heavily influenced by the Gothic aesthetic, which favoured length and verticality. In the Renaissance period, there was a penchant for horizontal shapes. Men wore doublets with large, padded shoulders, and women's dresses were designed with wide silhouettes. As a result, the long-toed poulaine was replaced by the Tudor 'footbag': so-called because wearing the shoe was likened to putting your foot inside a bag.

Analogous to the length of the pikes, the width of the footbag indicated the status of the wearer. Henry VIII is often depicted wearing distinctly broad shoes, which would have bolstered the image of his aggressive, confident stance.

Henry VIII (1491–1547)

Henry VIII (1491–1547) c.1543/1547

Hans Holbein the younger (c.1497–1543) (studio of)

National Trust, Petworth House

In this royal portrait, he wears bulky, square shoes, made from lavish cream silk, with slashed details. Silk or velvet shoes were particularly expensive as the materials had to be imported from Italy. The vogue for decorative slashes, which were also found on garments, was initially derived from Swiss mercenaries, who had incorporated them in imitation of the sword slashes their clothes received in battle.

In the portraiture of the Baroque period, Europe's royalty and extended elite were portrayed in their ostentatious finery as a means to advertise their conspicuous wealth and artistic tastes. Fashion was designed to emphasise men's shapely calves and thighs, meaning colourful stockings worn with elaborate shoes became a popular motif. Shoes were developed with an arched sole and a small heel. The slip-on had to be replaced with latchet fastenings, often laced with ribbon ties.

Richard Sackville (1589–1624), 3rd Earl of Dorset

Richard Sackville (1589–1624), 3rd Earl of Dorset 1613

William Larkin (c.1585–1619)

English Heritage, Kenwood

The heeled shoes worn by the 'licentious spendthrift' Richard Sackville, the 3rd Earl of Dorset, in this 1613 portrait, are adorned with large gold rosettes. Shoe roses, in addition to bows, were a popular embellishment with the English upper classes. In his 1623 tragicomedy The Devil's Law Case, the popular Jacobean playwright John Webster satirically referred to 'overblown roses to hide your gouty ankles'.

The first shoe with a distinct heel had emerged in Europe around 1575, but the style didn't gain widespread favour until the 1600s. It was not a new invention, however, as heeled shoes had been worn as early as the tenth century by Persian cavalry soldiers who needed to keep their feet in stirrups. Throughout Charles I's reign – a period of civil unrest and warfare – men's footwear was influenced by military dress.

King Charles I

King Charles I 1631

Daniel Mytens (c.1590–1647)

National Portrait Gallery, London

In this 1631 portrait, Charles wears a refined, knee-high boot, the style of which became synonymous with the fashion of his supporters, the Cavaliers. It is reported that between 1634 and 1635, he had twenty pairs made, at the extortionate £24 each. Fabricated from expensive supple leather, the wrinkled look was deliberate, with a turned down top, blunt toe, thick heels, and functional spurs, not too dissimilar from a cowboy boot.

Shoes for men and women began to differ during the 1700s. Men, spending more time outdoors, wore practical, sturdier shoes, while footwear for women, who were often limited to the domestic space, became more ornamental. Like their male counterparts, the female gentry drew attention to their desirability and reputation through being seen in public in resplendent clothes and accessories.

Expensive footwear was key to their performative display: a flash of a scintillating shoe, perhaps decorated with jewels, feathers, and elaborate embroidery, might be glimpsed during a dance or promenade.

Although the flamboyant Rococo style was not adopted in England with the same enthusiasm as it was in France, critics did bemoan the 'frivolous, ridiculous and indecent' fashion that they saw corrupting English dress. One sought-after Rococo item was the 'Pompadour' court shoe, named after Madame de Pompadour, an official mistress of the French King Louis XV.

Madame de Pompadour

Madame de Pompadour 1759

François Boucher (1703–1770)

The Wallace Collection

In an era where feminine carriage was crucial, the shoe was notoriously difficult to walk in. It was backless, akin to a slipper or mule, with a precariously curved, high heel. Small was considered beautiful, with women often binding their feet to make them appear more petite, and even fainting as a result of the constriction. The sumptuous pink satin slipper flying through the air from the foot of the swinging woman in Fragonard's erotic masterpiece The Swing (1767) is undoubtedly a Pompadour shoe.

The Swing

The Swing 1767

Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806)

The Wallace Collection

Fragonard uses the stray slipper as an allegory for her lost innocence and sexuality.

Shoes are used as symbols and metaphors in numerous artworks from the twentieth century. William Nicholson was particularly interested in the revelation of personality through clothing, and in Miss Jekyll's Gardening Boots (1920), the garden designer Gertrude Jekyll's tired, unlaced, working boots act as a substitute for her physical person.

Miss Jekyll's Gardening Boots

Miss Jekyll's Gardening Boots 1920

William Nicholson (1872–1949)


Despite her absent form, Jekyll's shoes represent the essence of her character.

Marguerite Kelsey

Marguerite Kelsey 1928

Meredith Frampton (1894–1984)


In his portrait of Marguerite Kelsey (1928), Meredith Frampton used her red shoes to function in sharp contrast to the austere coldness of the white dress and flowers, and as an allegory for simmering passion.

Allen Jones' Pop Art-inflected Wet Seal (1966), in which the spiked, thin heel of a stiletto is indistinguishable from the fabric of the latex-clad leg and buttock, epitomises their sexualised potential.

Wet Seal

Wet Seal 1966

Allen Jones (b.1937)


Against the liberated backdrop of 1960s, the 'kinky' thigh-high leather boot – inspired by the underground world of fetish clubs – was the shoe du jour.

In his nascent career as a commercial illustrator in the 1950s, Andy Warhol had worked on numerous New York Times adverts for the shoe manufacturer I. Miller, spurring his enduring interest in commercialism and reproduction.

Paratrooper Boots

Paratrooper Boots 1985–1986

Andy Warhol (1928–1987)

National Galleries of Scotland

In the mid-1980s, he returned to portraying footwear, as with this silkscreen painting of Paratrooper Boots (1985–1986) from the series 'Ads and Illustrations'.


Shoes 1985

Lisa Milroy (b.1959)


Repetition also occurs in Lisa Milroy's oil painting Shoes (1985), in which symbolism is eschewed in favour of minimalism, with the artist seeing the shoe as a neutral object without subjective connotations.


Shoe 1995

Diane Maclean (b.1939)

University of Stirling

Diane Maclean's Shoe (1995), in which she created a monumental sandal from pine rods and galvanised steel, was made for the Scottish Sculpture Open at Kildrummy Castle. One could walk across it, with the curved sole made to the scale of a ramp, and the ankle straps forming an open tower. Maclean's contemporary rendering of historical footwear creates a connection between the past and present, and perhaps appropriately captures our enduring interest in the duality of shoes: as both functional and figurative objects.

Philomena Epps, writer