HIDDEN HISTORIES: SANDALS
Given that it’s August, you may be wearing your pair as you read this: but for how long have we been wearing the humble sandal?
The Ancient Greeks and Romans loved them – and their popularity hasn’t died out yet. We look at the long history of the summer sandal.
NOT MUCH IN IT
Many of us have a pair of sandals in our cupboard, gathering dust over the winter, but then coming into their own as soon as we get a hint of sunshine. There isn’t much to a pair: they are open, and consist mainly of a sole that is attached to your foot with straps. Although they have similarities to other types of shoe, they leave most of the upper foot exposed, and should cost less than shoes, as they require less in terms of material and construction.
Did you know that the oldest known sandals – found in Oregon – were woven from bark and were constructed at least 10,000 years ago? This shows that open footwear has an incredibly long history, although more of us will know of their use by the ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians.
The word ‘sandal’ itself derives from Greek. The Ancient Greeks had two types of sandal, in fact – those made of willow leaves or twigs were known as baxeae and worn by comedians and philosophers; and the ‘colthurnus’, sandals that were more like boots, stretching up the leg, were worn by horsemen and hunters, or those of high rank or prestige. These could be like more modern built-up shoes, with cork slices added to the sole to make it wearer look taller.
Women tended to usually wear sandals, made with lots of straps. The tops were made out of leather, and the soles from layered cattle skin. Sandals may not have been practical for very active individuals, and as Ancient Greek women were in the home more than their husbands, they may have found them to be more suitable and thus wore them more.
Meanwhile, ancient Egyptians preferred to make their sandals out of palm-leaves or papyrus, with priests being made to wear the latter. Romans, meanwhile, individualised their sandals by carving designs into them.
Ancient Roman soldiers wore a specific type of sandal for marching. This was known as caligae, and it had a heavy sole to cope with terrain and activity. All ranks up to, and including, a centurion would be required to wear caligae. The open parts of the caligae were designed to reduce the chance of blisters forming as a result of long marches, and they were also healthier for the feet in damp conditions. In Roman Britain, with its often cold weather, woollen socks were sometimes worn with caligae.
These items of footwear were more similar to boots, as the Romans usually regarded sandals as being indoor footwear. Indeed, higher class Romans would make their slaves carry a pair of sandals for them to change into before indoor occasions such as banquets.
In Japan, straw sandals known as ‘waraji’ were traditionally worn not just by soldiers but by members of the samurai class, although they were seen mainly as the footwear of commoners. Usually made of rice straw, they could also be constructed with
hemp, palm, or cotton. Waraji were often worn with toes sticking out over their front edge, but the method of tying them depended on who the wearer was – a farmer tying them differently to a soldier, for example. Today, it is mainly monks who wear these sandals.
WRITING ABOUT SANDALS
The OED’s first recorded use of the word sandals in writing comes from a 14th century edition of the Bible, in Mark’s Gospel. An early 16th century edition has the line: “And the angel said unto him: gird thyself and bind on thy sandalles”. Late 17th century and early 18th references make the sandal something ‘foreign’, with reference being made to it being an item of footwear for Moors, Persians, Basques and Navarrois people. Samuel Pepys, in his diary, wrote of a priest in his cell, “with his hair-cloths to his skin, bare-legged, with a Sandall only on.”
One of the more ubiquitous sandal brands today is Birkenstock – the maker of ugly, but practical, sandals with cork or rubber soles. The company has its roots in the 18th century, when Johann Adam Birkenstock is recorded as making shoes in a small German village. Over a century later, in 1896, his descendant Konrad developed a contoured insole, and opened two shoe shops in Frankfurt. However, it was only in 1964 that another member of the family, Karl, turned the inserts into a sandal. Interestingly, after WW2, the Birkenstock became popular with soldiers returning from fighting, as it had orthopaedic benefits.
Other 20th century favourites, however, were far more ‘dressy’ than the humble Birkenstock, with lattice work or other decorative features, and heels. Children, too, wore sandals, or a cross between sandals and shoes, and marketing increasingly targeted adverts at a distinct sandal-wearing audience.
Today, we still wear Grecian sandals on occasion – little more than a sole that is kept on the foot by laces or straps that fasten round the ankle and up the calf. A similar type of sandal is also called the gladiator, which derive from the caligae of the Roman legionary soldiers.
Sandals offered ‘carefree comfort’, according to this Northern Irish advert of 1942
Apairofvegetable fibresandalsfrom ancientEgypt
Japanese straw sandals, known as waraji
A reproduction of a Roman soldier’s caliga
Birkenstock sandals as we know them were developed in the 1960s, although the firm dates back to the 18th century This 1931 advert shows the development of the sandal from ancient times to the modern ‘dancing sandal’
A collection of different types of sandal from ancient Greece and Rome