The sandal is the simplest form of foot covering, consisting of a sole held to the foot using a configuration of straps. Sandals can be utilitarian and bought from a street vendor in Bombay for a few rupees, or a work of art, designed by Manolo Blahnik and selling for several hundred dollars from a high-end boutique. Sandals have been made from every possible material—wood, leather, textile, straw, metal, and even stone, and have graced every echelon of society in almost every culture of the world.
Sandals are the oldest and most commonly found foot covering worldwide. Archaeological examples, uncovered from the Anasazi culture of the American Southwest, date back 8,000 years. These plaited and woven sandals provided a flexible protective sole and utilized a simple V-shaped strap.
Sandals are most commonly found amongst the peoples of hot climates where searing sands and rocky landscapes, inhabited with poisonous insects and thorny plants, necessitated the development of the most basic form of foot covering. Hot, dry climates generally precluded the use of a closed shoe or boot, something that would develop in colder, wetter climates. However, historically, sandals are not found exclusively among the peoples of hot climates.
In Japan, geta, wooden-soled sandals, are worn with fabric socks called tabi that keep out wetness and winter's chill. Similarly, natives of Eastern Siberia and Alaska wear fur boots that originated in antiquity as sandals tied over fur stockings. At some time in history, the fur stockings were sewn to the soles, creating a boot, but the sandals' straps remained, sewn into the sole seam and tied around the ankle.
While most sandals made for the global market of the early 2000s are usually manufactured of synthetic or recycled materials, such as tires, some indigenous materials are still employed for local markets. In India, water buffalo hide is commonly used for making sandals or chap-pli for the Indian marketplace. Metal and wood have also been used in India to produce paduka, the traditional toe-knob sandals of the Hindu: the soles were often stilted, limiting the surface area of the earth trod, protecting the tiniest and humblest of life forms. Similar stilted wooden-soled sandals can be found in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and as far west as Syria and Turkey, although the knobs are replaced with straps ranging from embroidered fabric to simple twisted fiber loops. Syrian wooden sandals, often inlaid with silver wire and mother-of-pearl, were dubbed kab-kabs after the sound they make when being walked in. Although the use of these styles is not influenced by Hinduism, their origins were most assuredly from the Hindu toe-knob sandal.
North African and Middle Eastern nomads developed various inventive sole shapes to allow for better movement in desert terrains. The sub-Saharan Hausa used sandals with large soles that extend well beyond the foot, while curved soles were utilized in Uganda, and rolled toes were developed in Arabia. In more humid climates, sandals were preferred for their cool breathability. Ancient Aztecs and Mayans of Central America adopted a thick-soled sandal with a protective legging attached at the heel, while the top of the foot and shin remained exposed.
The Ancient Sandal
Western culture traces the origins of the sandal from ancient Egyptian tombs, the earliest evidence dating from around the period of unification, about 5,100 years ago. A frieze in the Cairo museum depicts the Pharaoh Narmer followed by his sandal bearer, suggesting the sandals were a symbol of the pharaoh's sovereignty. This is under-scored by the ancient Egyptian practice of placing the Pharaoh's sandals upon his throne in his absence. Sandals were status-oriented for the elite, beginning with the pharaoh and working down the ranks of society throughout the Egyptian dynastic period, so that by the period of Roman occupation around 30 b.c.e. all but the very lowest of society were permitted to wear footwear.
However, it appears that the wearing of sandals still remained an occasional one, reserved mostly for outdoor wear, especially while traveling. The vast majority of ancient Egyptians never wore footwear. Most Egyptians with status never wore footwear inside the home and in fact it appears that the Pharaoh himself did not regularly wear footwear indoors until the late dynasties, about 3,000 years ago. It is also evident that in the presence of a higher-ranking individual or deity, removing one's sandals exhibited deference.
Sandals were often metaphors for the journey into the afterlife—either real (those worn by the deceased in life) or models made especially for the tomb. The earliest examples dating back more than 4,000 years are most often life-size models made of hard wooden soles, suggesting that in death the objects were symbolic or made available to those who did not wear footwear in life. Newer tombs, aged 2,000–2,500 years, reveal everyday footwear, including styles with coil-woven soles similar to modern espadrilles.
When Alexander the Great united the Greeks in the fourth century b.c.e., the resulting society was one of great wealth and leisure that developed the arts, sciences, and sports under a democratic system. The Greeks also developed many different types of sandals and other styles of footwear, giving names to the various styles. Fortunately the Greeks kept thorough records, thereby giving accurate descriptions and references to the various styles of footwear and what those names were. This is indeed fortuitous as archaeological examples of Greek footwear are nonexistent, and historians must work from these descriptions and from those styles portrayed in surviving artwork. There were strict rules as to who could wear what, when, and for what purpose.
Sandals used during the early Roman Empire were very similar to the Greek styles and even followed the same precedents set for restricted use according to the citizen's rank in society. Like the Greeks, the Romans named the various styles, and in fact, "sandal" comes from its Latin name sandalium.
As the Roman Empire grew to include all the kingdoms held by Greece and Egypt, the Romans then continued their forays into northern Europe. The caliga, a military sandal with a thick-layered leather and hobnailstudded sole was named from the Greek kalikioi. The young Caius Caesar was nicknamed Caligula after this style of sandals which he wore as a boy when he would dress up as a soldier to stay in military encampments. The caliga protected the feet of Roman centurions on the long marches into northern Europe. However, the northern European climate, with its mud and snow, made it necessary for Roman invaders to adopt a more enclosed shoe style, beginning the decline of the sandal in the classical period.
As the Empire's strength diminished after the second century c.e., so did the quality of manufacture of footwear. Statuary, as this is more plentiful than actual extant examples of Roman footwear shows simple V-straps utilized on sandals. These are far less complex than the strap arrangements in use when the Empire was expanding and at its greatest.
In the seventh century the Christian Roman Empire, based in Constantinople, decreed that bare toes were immodest in mixed company. The sandal all but disappeared for the next 1,300 years, remaining in constant use only in cloistered monastic orders.
Although gone, sandals were not forgotten. Artists portrayed sandal-wearing classical figures in biblically themed frescoes during the Renaissance, and sandals were worn by actors portraying historical figures in theatrical presentations.
The Fashion Sandal
After the 1789 Revolution, the new French republic looked to ancient Greece and Rome for inspiration; along with classically draped garments, the sandal made a brief return to the feet of fashionable women. By the 1810s, a closed-shoe style, resembling a ballerina's slipper with crisscrossed silk ankle ties, became fashionable, and although no toes were exposed and technically the style was not a true sandal, the long ties did suggest a classical association, and the shoes were commonly referred to in period literature as "sandal-slippers."
The Empress Eugénie is depicted wearing toe-baring sandals in a photograph taken in the 1850s, but this was not to be a successful attempt at reintroducing the sandal as a staple into the fashionable woman's wardrobe. Propriety kept men's and women's toes hidden even on the beach, where bathing sandals consisting of cork-soled cotton closed-toe shoes with crisscrossed laces, first adopted in the 1860s. Similarly another classical revival in fashions brought about the sandal-boot for women. This was a closed-boot style, but cutouts in the shaft exposed the stocking-clad leg beneath. This style of boot first appeared in the late 1860s and remained fashionable into the early years of the twentieth century.
It was back at the beach in the early twentieth century where bathing sandals and boots gradually bared more of the ankle and instep. During the late 1920s, women donned beach pajamas for the poolside or at the beach. These loose-fitting pantsuits were paired with low-heeled sandals made of wide leather or cotton straps. It was a short jump from poolside to the dance floor in the early 1930s, where under long evening gowns, high-heeled leather and silk sandals permitted feet to remain air-conditioned for long nights of fox-trots and rumbas. By the late 1930s, the sandal was a fully reinstated necessity in a fashionable shoe wardrobe and included styles for all times of day.
World War II inadvertently aided in the reestablishment of the sandal as certain materials, such as leather, were rationed for civilian usage. Sandal straps require less leather in their production than an enclosed pump, and summer sandals made up of twisted and woven fibers and other nonrationed materials were available without coupons on both sides of the Atlantic.
By the 1950s, many European men were wearing sandals for casual wear but most North American men considered them too effete. Women's evening sandals in the 1950s used the barest of straps to give the illusion of no footwear at all, as if the wearer was walking on tiptoe. The vamp strap-sandal style, also known as an open-toe mule, created a similar illusion, although quick steps proved impossible without losing a shoe in the process. American shoe designer Beth Levine solved this issue with the addition of an elastic web running the length of the insole. This innovation was called a spring-o-later.
In the late 1960s hippie anti-fashion introduced the most basic sandal style to American streets. Dubbed "Jesus" sandals, these simple leather toe ring or V-strap sandals were imported from Mexico and Asia, or made up locally by fledgling street artisans. Gender neutral, this sandal embraced naturalism, comfort, and ethnic-inspired style. This paved the way for the introduction of "health" sandals into the fashionable wardrobe, such as Birkenstocks in the 1970s. Contoured insoles and minimal curtailing of the foot were touted as perfect aids to foot health and comfort.
While high-fashion sandals have remained a staple in women's wardrobes since the 1930s, men's sandals have never achieved a place beyond the beach and casual wear. However, boundaries have been crossed in recent years. Sport sandals, introduced in the 1990s, transcended the sandal into a foot covering suitable for a variety of sports activities by including a synthetic rubber-treaded sole. And the simplest of colored rubber flip-flop thongs, intended for basic seaside foot covering, has even made it into the pages of Vogue and other au courante fashion publications, gracing the feet of well-dressed models in clothes deemed suitable for a day of shopping on Fifth Avenue or the Champs Élysées.
Bondi, Federico, and Giovanni Mariacher. If the Shoe Fits. Venice, Italy: Cavallino Venezia, 1983
Durian-Ress, Saskia. Schuhe: vom späten Mittelalter bis zur Gegenwart Hirmer. Munich: Verlag, 1991.
Ferragamo, Salvatore. The Art of the Shoe, 1927–1960. Florence, Italy: Centro Di, 1992.
Rexford, Nancy E. Women's Shoes in America, 1795-1930. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2000.
Swann, June. Shoes. London: B.T. Batsford, Ltd., 1982.
——. Shoemaking. Shire Album 155. Jersey City, N.J.: Park-west Publications, 1986.
Walford, Jonathan. The Gentle Step. Toronto: Bata Shoe Museum, 1994.
One of the very earliest hieroglyphs, or picture stories of ancient Egypt found preserved in tombs, shows a sandal maker accompanying King Menes, the Egyptian ruler who united Upper and Lower Egypt in about 3100 b.c.e. Despite this evidence, most hieroglyphs show that Egyptians during the Old Kingdom period (c. 2700–c. 2000 b.c.e.) and the Middle Kingdom period (c. 2000–c. 1500 b.c.e.) went barefoot. Beginning in the New Kingdom period (c. 1500–c. 750 b.c.e.), however, sandals became the favored form of footwear. Sandals protected the feet from the hot desert sand, but their open tops allowed the feet to stay cool. They were certainly worn by nobles and pharaohs, high officials and kings and queens, though working people may still have gone barefoot.
The sandals worn by ancient Egyptians were very simple. They had a base that was made of wood, goatskin, or fibers from palm trees or the papyrus plant. They were held to the foot by simple straps, one of which crossed the arch of the foot and the other that went from the arch strap between the big toe and the second toe. Many of the sandals that have been discovered come to a point in front of the toes.
More elaborate sandals have been discovered in the tombs of some of the pharaohs. The tomb of King Tutankhamen, who ruled briefly in the fourteenth century b.c.e. and whose tomb was discovered in 1922, contained several pairs of sandals, including a jeweled pair and a pair with soles that were imprinted with images of his enemies. The images were meant to convey that when King Tutankhamen walked on these sandals he crushed his enemies underfoot.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Cosgrave, Bronwyn. The Complete History of Costume and Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.
Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
[See also Volume 1, Ancient Egypt: Unraveling the Mystery of Hieroglyphs box on p. 18 ]
Sandals are simple footwear composed of a sole that is held onto the foot by straps. Though the ancient Greeks did not invent the style, they did create many types of leather sandals, developing shoemaking into a skilled art and introducing a wide variety of footwear styles for all classes of men and women. By 500 b.c.e. the average Greek citizen could tell much about the people that passed in the street by the style of sandals they wore.
Early Greek sandals were made from a stiff leather or wooden sole to which leather straps were attached. These straps usually went between the wearer's big toe and second toe and around the back of the ankle to hold the sole firmly to the bottom of the foot. Much of the individual design of these sandals was created by the different ways the leather straps wrapped around the foot and ankle. Wealthy people wore soft leather sandals, sometimes dyed in various colors. The very wealthy sometimes even had gilded sandals, or sandals painted gold, in which the leather was covered with real gold. Some high officials and stage actors wore sandals called buskins, with tall soles made of cork, which made them appear taller. Some shoemakers carved designs or placed nails in the soles of their sandals in various patterns, so that the footprints of the wearer left a distinctive mark. One pair of ancient Greek sandals has been found that left the words "Follow me," written in every footprint, and many experts believe that the shoes must have belonged to a prostitute. Workers wore heavy-duty sandals, such as the thick leather crepida, which were made with an extra-large sole and wrapped around to protect the sides of the foot, then laced up the top.
Shoemakers became respected citizens in the Greece of the fourth and fifth centuries b.c.e., and their craft was believed to be watched over by the god Apollo—god of the sun, music, poetry, and healing, among others. Sandals themselves were sometimes given magical powers in the myths of the time. Though the gods and goddesses were often pictured barefoot, Hermes and Iris, the messengers of the gods, were always pictured in winged sandals, and goddesses such as Hera, the queen of the gods, and Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, were often depicted in golden sandals.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Kippen, Cameron. "The History of Footwear: Sandals." Curtin University of Technology Department of Podiatry. http://podiatry.curtin.edu.au/sandal.html (accessed on July 11, 2003).
Laver, James. Costume and Fashion: A Concise History. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2002.
While the men living in the Sumerian (3000–2000 b.c.e.), the Akkadian (2350–2218 b.c.e.), and the Babylonian (1894–1595 b.c.e.) empires of Mesopotamia, the region between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in present-day Iraq, went barefoot all the time, Assyrian men began to wear sandals for everyday use around 911 b.c.e. Showing these changes are sculptures and bas-reliefs, or wall carvings, from the time period depicting men with foot coverings. The evidence suggests that all men went barefoot while worshipping and some men continued to go barefoot all the time. Some, however, began to wear protective sandals for everyday use, especially those living in the more mountainous areas, and some wore boots while fighting wars or hunting.
No Assyrian sandals have survived, but the remaining pictures and sculptures show that they had a wedge heel, a heel covering, and were held to the foot with straps and a toe ring. These sandals were probably made out of leather or strong grasses called reeds and are the earliest foot coverings in Mesopotamia.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
Zori are sandals similar to what are known as flip-flops in the West. They are the most ancient form of footwear in Japan. Flat straw sandals with a thong held between the toes were already being worn in the Heian period (794–1185). Today zori are often made of lacquered lightweight wood, plastic, or rubber, and the thongs are made of cotton or velvet.
Zori are worn over tabis, which are cotton socks designed to accommodate the thong by having the big toe in a separate compartment. The zori can be easily slipped off before entering the house, with its woven floors, in keeping with the Japanese tradition of removing footwear.
During World War II (1939–45), American soldiers fighting in the Orient were told that they could tell the difference between Korean people who spoke Japanese and native Japanese by looking at the feet: the native Japanese person would have a larger space between the first two toes, for the zori worn from a young age have a marked effect on the foot, pushing the big toe and the toe next to it farther apart.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Japanese Costume Through the Ages. Tokyo, Japan: Tokyo National Museum, 1962.
Kennedy, Alan. Japanese Costume: History and Tradition. New York: Rizzoli, 1990.