“S” for Shoes: A gendered shoe from 17th century-Copenhagen. Vivi Lena Andersen, Curator and Archaeologist at the Museum of Copenhagen, Denmark

Shoes were invented 40.000 years ago. Presumably for protection against extreme cold, hot or rocky surfaces and poisonous animals and plants, but shoes became much more than a simple garment for protection. It also became a tool for social survival.

Male Shoe, Leather, 17th century, Museum of Copenhagen
Male Shoe, Leather and wood, 17th century, Museum of Copenhagen, KBM 3827 FO 210072
Male Shoe, Leather, 17th century, Museum of Copenhagen
Male Shoe, Leather and wood, 17th century, Museum of Copenhagen, KBM 3827 FO 210072

Pictures show a 350 years-old shoe from the collection of Museum of Copenhagen found at the recent Metro excavation at the City Hall Square. This shoe represents some of the most crucial features of footwear history in the early modern period. It was also in the early modern period that the most fundamental design and construction techniques of the shoes we wear today were developed – for better and worse. Three examples are mentioned below.

First: Gender

This is a man´s shoe and that is actually quite special to be able to say, because up until around 1650 men and women wore the same types of shoes and that makes it difficult to distinguish between the two sexes. But since then shoes were used for differentiating gender. Women´s shoes developed a very pointed toe and a curved wooden heel while a square toe and stacked leather heel was reserved for men´s shoes.

France, 1660, leather and embroidered silk. Paris, musée des arts décoratifs, inv. Louvre Lab. 1160.1-2

Second: High heels

Though it is man´s shoe, it has a quite high heel. High heeled shoes became a part of European shoe fashion around the year 1600 and were worn by both sexes and all ages. Even toddlers. High heels were a status symbol, but heels also made shoes more durable and easier and cheaper to repair. So you could say that the introduction of the heel was a fashionable and sustainable solution in one.

Third: Foot defects

The shoe is very narrow and the size is too small for the gentleman who wore it. It was even necessary for him to cut a slit through the middle of the vamp and add new holes along the sides for lacing. His foot was too big for the standard footwear of the time.

Homme de qualité en habit d’hiver (1678), Fashion plate by Jean Dieu de Saint-Jean (1654-1695), Ars. 368, pl. 106. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France
Homme de qualité en habit d’hiver (1678), Fashion plate by Jean Dieu de Saint-Jean (1654-1695), Ars. 368, pl. 106. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France

My research shows that the frequency of foot defects such as flat-footedness, bunions, overlying toes and hammertoes accelerates from 1600 and onwards. The reason? Basically the idealization of small feet is for men too. Too small and high heeled shoes shaped in ways that deformed the natural shape of the foot and impaired its functionality caused the downfall of foot health.

When studying old shoes we achieve a better understanding of the norms of the past, but we also get a better understanding of the practices of our own time, which can affect how the shoes of tomorrow will be designed, produced and worn.

References: À vos pieds, Exhibition at musée des Confluences, Lyon (2016-17), musée international de la chaussure, Romans (2017)

Elizabeth Semmelhack, Standing Tall: The curious History of Men in Heels, Exhibition at the Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto (2015-17)

Signe Groot Terkelsen and Vivi Lena Andersen (2016): Red Heels. The Symbol of Power Shift in 17th-century Copenhagen, Archaeological Textiles Review, 58, pp. 3-9.

Vivi Lena Andersen (2016): Old Shoes in a New Perspective-Fashioning Archaeology, Fashion Practice http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17569370.2016.1232886


2 thoughts on ““S” for Shoes: A gendered shoe from 17th century-Copenhagen. Vivi Lena Andersen, Curator and Archaeologist at the Museum of Copenhagen, Denmark”

  1. The pair of red-heeled shoes, with heel too high for the last on which the shoes were made, suggest sample or ‘masterpiece’ work by a heel-maker. Made at all dates, but in more recent centuries often in archaic styles, so undateable.
    It would be interesting to know if the sole shows any evidence for having been worn to walk in

  2. The pair of red-heeled shoes, with heel too high for the last on which the shoes were made, suggest sample or ‘masterpiece’ work by a heel-maker. Made at all dates, but in more recent centuries often in archaic styles, so undateable.
    It would be interesting to know if the sole shows any evidence for having been worn to walk in

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