You can always judge a man by his shoes, or so the old adage goes. And the same goes for woman, as shown in an exhibition in Winchester which promises to reveal the use and role of all sorts of footwear through the ages – and what it conveyed about the wearer’s status. Co-curator Tara McKinney Marinus says: “It’s a story of our social history, rather than footwear as fashion.”
Nearly 60 pairs of shoes and boots, slip-ons and clogs, plus some unusual one-off items, will be on display, most made in Britain over the past millennium.
The oldest item is a 1,000-year- old “skate” shoe from the late Anglo-Saxon period. The most recent is a 2022 Converse high-top trainer inspired by 1920s basketball player Chuck Taylor before being sported by stars from James Dean to Kurt Cobain. The skate shoe, which would have been attached to a leather cloth wrapped around the foot, was perfect for gliding over frozen rivers and ponds in the 11th century, or for walking through snow. Archaeologists have recently proved that the skate part of the shoe was made from the bone of a sheep.
Shoes: Inside Out, which opens on 24 November at the Arc arts centre in Winchester city centre, tells many fascinating human stories, such as that of a child’s shoe found at a house on the Hampshire/Surrey border. During renovation works, the shoe was discovered in the chimney stack, having been placed there in the late 17th century to ward off spirits that might cause harm to the family. As it happens, the very earliest example in Britain of a shoe used as protection against evil comes from Winchester. Dating from the start of the 14th century, it was placed behind the choir stalls in Winchester Cathedral, and is still held by the church.
Perhaps the most poignant item from Hampshire Cultural Trust’s treasure trove of 2,000 pieces of footwear is a pair of child’s clogs from the mid 19th century. The insides are stamped with the phrase: “Loaned, not to be pawned”. The clogs had been given under the Poor Relief Act, first passed by Elizabeth I’s government in 1601 and reformed two centuries later for children entering a Victorian workhouse.
People have worn shoes for millennia, and shoemaking has long been a common profession. One quirk of the trade was the production of straight shoes, which fitted either foot, without the usual slight curve to the left or right of a pair. A cost-saving practice for wearer and shoemaker, it was in use until the 19th century.
The exhibition also tells the history of high heels, which originated in Assyria (modern western Asia) around 700BC, when heeled riding boots coincided with the invention of the stirrup. This enabled male soldiers to sit more firmly in the saddle while holding heavier weapons. Elizabeth I often wore high-heeled riding boots to emphasise her “masculinity”. She may have worn them at Tilbury for her pre-Armada speech: “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king.”
The oldest high heels in the exhibition date from the early 18th century and are three inches tall. “The women who wore them then were rich and were taken from place to place in carriages, so they hardly had to walk in them,” says McKinney Marinus. “Their heels showed class status and wealth.”
For hundreds of years, high heels have been a statement of power. The show includes a pair of Victorian pearl-buttoned boots, worn to titillate and dominate, as well as far more recent pairs by Manolo Blahnik and Christian Louboutin, made famous by Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City.
But the story is not always straightforward. “Conformity to gender stereotypes is sometimes blurred,” says co-curator Claire Isbester. Take cowboy boots: initially a working boot made of leather for riding horses, they were taken up by both men and, even more, for women as everyday wear.
Footwear can also change its purpose quite rapidly. Doc Martens originated at the end of the second world war, when a German army doctor, Klaus Märtens, came up with the idea of a leather boot with an air-cushioned sole to protect his broken foot. Within a few years, they had become popular with elderly female gardening enthusiasts. In 1959, they were taken up by a British footwear company, Griggs, near Northampton, which tweaked the design to create Doc Martens, or DMs.
Mod icon Pete Townshend of the Who boosted sales by being photographed in a pair in 1967. However, in the Mod revival two decades later, the DM was a favoured item for their punk rocker rivals. In the exhibition, a red leather 2020 pair symbolise both androgyny and rebelliousness.
“Footwear tells you more about a person than their clothes,” says McKinney Marinus. Boots may indeed be “made for walkin’”, but their history tells us so much more.