12 Ancient Shoes So Weird They Make Crocs Look Normal

It’s time to get dressed in the morning, and in a completely unexpected twist, you have no choice but to wear snow boots for what feels like the 100th consecutive day. But, as we grow increasingly bitter over February’s frostbite, let's not forget that plenty of other fascinating footwear options exist. Here to help us fantasize about chaussures past is Rebecca Shawcross, the shoe resources officer at Northampton Museum’s The Shoe Collection, the world’s largest heritage shoe collection. Released this January, her book, SHOES: An Illustrated History, provides a stunning visual timeline of prehistoric to contemporary styles — some so bizarre you'll rethink your whole idea of what's "ugly."  

Shoes have always served a practical and fantastical purpose, and Shawcross’ text demonstrates how shifting notions of taste have affected fabrics and shapes over time. In just a few years, shoe trends could go from an exaggerated pointed-toe heel, to a simple leather slip-on, to sandals with a million straps. And, while the weather is arguably the most powerful dictator of our footwear decisions at the moment, Shawcross reminds us that socio-economic status was once a key determinant. Much like hemlines and haircuts, shoes have always been signifiers of cultural change, and this book digs into that a bit deeper.

Shawcross’ SHOES can be purchased on Amazon, but keep reading for a sampling of the footwear featured. While we admit that most of these styles wouldn’t stand a chance against Manhattan’s sludgy sidewalks, their unique flair and rich history are enough to at least momentarily rid our minds of the winter chills.  
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Photo: Courtesy of SHOES: An Illustrated History.
Early footwear was largely dependent on location. In hot countries, there was a need to keep feet cool and also protected from rough terrain. Sandals were the obvious answer; recognized as the first form of footwear ever worn, sandals date back to ancient times.

The earliest known examples, like the ones shown here, were relatively simple creations, made by hand using natural materials — woven plasm, twisted vines, and leaves. The temperature, humidity, and dry conditions within caves contributed to the sandals’ survival, but over the years, the shoes wore out quickly.
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Here is an example of a Roman leather shoe made during the second century CE. The shoe’s upper has a pattern of dots punched through the leather, allowing the foot to breathe. It fastens with interlocking loops that look a lot like the laces of today, and has a hobnailed sole to prevent wear.
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Photo: Courtesy of SHOES: An Illustrated History.
One of the most distinctive and intriguing shoe styles of the medieval period was the poulaine, also known as the pike or Krakow. Thought to have originated in Krakow, Poland, the style was first seen in 1340, and it was popular until around 1475. A low-cut, flat-soled slip-on shoe, sometimes fastened with a side lace or toggle, the poulaine’s distinctive feature was its very pronounced pointed toe.

Although the style was worn across the social classes, a more exaggerated toe became a status symbol for the wealthy. The poulaine was a subject of foreign ridicule, and certain countries even outlawed the style.
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Photo: Courtesy of SHOES: An Illustrated History.
This 16th century style became known as the leather footbag, since wearing the shoe was like putting your foot into a bag. With its flat sole and broad toe, the footbag was a simple slip-on shoe, and it occasionally featured a bar strap or small buckle.

The merchant class traded out the restrictiveness of the poulaine for a wider, more relaxed footbag shape, yet the upper class sometimes stuffed the toes with straw, wool, or moss to create an even greater bulbous effect. The footbag width could be an incredible 6 1/2 inches, but like in the case of the poulaine, laws were passed to curb such excesses.
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Photo: Courtesy of SHOES: An Illustrated History.
Introduced in 1610, the square-toed shoe dominated shoe fashions in Europe for much of the 17th century. Slip-on shoes had fallen out of favor, and up until this point, a narrower shoe with blunted, yet still pointed, toe and increased sole thickness had been fashionable. There was now a preference for mules with high tongues and designs threaded with lace and ribbons.

While these silver and blue brocade shoes belonged to a woman, men and women wore similar latchet-tie styles, in a rather modern, unisex manner.
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Photo: Courtesy of SHOES: An Illustrated History.
From the 1660s, the flamboyant King Louis XIV of France became the most influential man in Europe, and his influence ventured far beyond the continent. He was personally responsible for perpetuating several trends during this period that also compensated for his short stature, including luxuriant wigs and the Louis heel — a solid wooden heel with a straight back line and an outward flare to the base.

Louis XIV’s heels were painted with landscapes, battle scenes, and it has even been suggested, risqué portraits, but it’s his red heels that became the ultimate indicator of wealth, worldliness, and sophistication. The shoes shown here were covered in Morocco leather, and today, this style is echoed in Christian Louboutin’s designs.
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Photo: Courtesy of SHOES: An Illustrated History.
Throughout Europe, women’s fashions were largely dictated by reactions to the French Revolution and the radical social and political turmoil of 1789. The French Revolution and the downfall of the monarchy significantly hurt France’s reputation, but toward the end of the 18th century, an admiration for French taste resurged. Broad, flat heels emerged, and the ‘sandle,’ a low-cut, slip-on model, like the ones shown here, became popular.

The distinct pointed toe and low heel reflected the narrow look of French fashions, and the style was accompanied by small leather overshoes, which covered the toe and had an elasticated loop that went around the heel, with or without a wedge.
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Photo: Courtesy of SHOES: An Illustrated History.
It was during the 1790s that right and left shoes were reintroduced. Most shoe styles during this period were flat-soled, and it became much easier for a shoemaker to make a mirror image. This, coupled with the invention of the pantograph, an instrument for copying a drawing on a different scale using a system of hinged and jointed rods, meant that rights and lefts eventually replaced straights. The renowned American bootmaker William Young of Philadelphia is credited with their invention.
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Photo: Courtesy of SHOES: An Illustrated History.
The second half of the 19th century witnessed several new styles of boots designed specifically for women. The button boot, in particular, typifies this period, but it varied between classes. For the elite, the boot was fitted with scalloped buttonhole edging, like the leather ones pictured. For less wealthy classes, the style was a more practical, straight-up-and-down legged boot.

However presented, these styles needed a button hook tool to enable the wearer to pass the buttons through the eyelets — naturally, those with the means paid a maid to fasten their boots for them.
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Photo: Courtesy of SHOES: An Illustrated History.
Concealed shoes are part of an ancient practice where footwear is deliberately hidden in buildings. The great majority that have been found were owned by working-class people and their children, like this child’s ankle shoe, which dates to around 1860.

Concealed shoes are mostly discovered when old buildings undergo renovations, and common spots are inside chimneys, behind walls, underneath floorboards, and in roofs. No one is quite sure how this practice came about, but one speculation is that the shoes provided symbolic protection for key areas and openings of the home through which evil spirits were thought to enter.
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Photo: Courtesy of SHOES: An Illustrated History.
With origins in France in the late 1860s, the Cromwell, a high-heeled shoe with a tabbed front and cut-steel buckle, was first seen in England in 1885. Though many shoe styles of the time were named for individuals — and these nod to Oliver Cromwell, a military leader and member of British Parliament — it was falsely believed that Cromwell’s men wore buckles on their shoes during the first half of the 17th century. With heels over 6 inches high, the Cromwell was ridiculed for its impracticality, however, it became the shoe for women who entertained in the boudoir, thereby solving the problem of having to walk in them. The style faded by 1900.
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