What can we learn about footwear from art?

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be able to spend part of a morning at the Princeton University Art Museum. Items in the small, eclectic collection range in age from several thousand years ago to the present day, so I decided it would be interesting to look at how footwear was depicted in European paintings and sculpture from the middle ages through to the late 19th century. Could we see examples of shoes or boots with wide toes, no heels and flexible toes?

In a word, yes.

For example, “The Road to Calvary”, painted in 1617 by the Flemish painter Frans Francken II, shows several men wearing what appear to be heel-free, laced shoes that are wide at the toe.

Colored arrows pointing at shoes in a painting.
Detail from “The Road to Calvary”, an early 17th century oil-on-wood painting in the Princeton University Art Museum. In this section of the painting’s foreground, several men appear to be wearing broad-toed, flat shoes, tied with laces near the ankle.

The artist appears to have painted some of his subjects in contemporary Flemish clothing: darted doublets and beribboned knee breeches were hardly Roman gear. So it seems reasonable to assume that the footwear shown in this image was the sort worn by at least some working men in Flanders in the early 17th century.

However, a few years before Frans Francken II finished his “Road to Calvary”, King Christian IV of Denmark had his portrait captured. The resulting oil painting, dated 1614, clearly shows shoes with significantly tapering toes as well as perceptibly raised heels.

Now, King Christian IV was a wealthy man, while the men on foot in “The Road to Calvary” seem to be everyday folk. I doubt that the King’s shoes would have been comfortable for someone walking any distance over uneven terrain. But the King would not have needed to walk: he would have ridden, taken a carriage or sleigh, or been carried in a litter. Raised heels might even have helped him keep his feet in stirrups. Therefore, raised heels and pointy toes were likely a signifier of his wealth.

This is just an anecdotal, non-expert comparison of two early 17th century European paintings. But it illustrates how a more systematic examination of artworks might perhaps be used to address all kinds of questions about

  • how footwear was made in the past
  • when and where particular fashions appeared, spread and disappeare
  • whether particular foot pathologies (such as bunions, or hammertoes) are depicted in the artworks’ subjects

Some of these questions can of course be addressed by examining archaeological remains (the immensely detailed set of patterns set out by Marquita Volken in “Archaeological Footwear” being a wonderful example). However, leather and thread is often not well preserved through the ages: in many excavated sites, the footwear has rotted away. Therefore, would looking at artworks yield extra information? I think it’s a fascinating subject: has anyone already done art history research in this area?

If you can suggest any papers, books, exhibitions, or anything else on this topic, I’d love to hear about them: please get in touch with me via twitter @tozafoot.