Rachel Quilligan discovers there’s more to shoes than just laces and a sole…

High heels to impress a king

It’s short-statured Catherine de Medici who is credited with the formal invention of high heels — she donned two-inch heels in an effort to impress her future husband and King of France Henry II. Heels became popular with the upper classes and the association with wealth and status spawned the phrase ‘well-heeled’.

In 1791 Napoleon banned heels in an effort to establish equality but by the late 1800s they were fashionable again as a symbol of feminine sexuality. The height of heels rose and fell throughout the 20th century depending on fashions and utility, but their presence has remained irrefutable.

Now their prevalence is greater than ever, thanks in part to shows such as Sex and the City and the popularity of high-end designers like Manolo Blahnik and Christian Louboutin.

Feuding ‘shoe’ brothers

German brothers Rudolf and Adolf ‘Adi’ Dassler began making shoes together in their mother’s laundry room in the 1920s but sibling rivalry soon reared its ugly head. It’s rumoured the final split came when Allied forces dropped explosives on the little town of Herzogenaurach, where the brothers were based, in 1943. As Rudolf brought his family into the bomb shelter where Adi and his wife were already waiting, Adi said “Here are the bloody bastards again” — Adi insisted he was referring to the planes above while Rudolf remained convinced the insult was aimed at him and his family.

The brothers began manufacturing shoes under two new companies — Adidas, named for Adi Dassler, and ‘Ruda’ for Rudolf Dassler, later rebranded Puma — and their bitter rivalry spanned decades, dividing their home town. Bakeries, butcheries and bars would not serve those who allied with an opposing brand; even marriage between Adidas and Puma devotees was frowned upon.

This rivalry soon became obsolete in the face of US giant Nike’s booming popularity — with a revolutionary rubber sole made on a waffle iron, signing the best basketballer in history and that distinctive Swoosh, Nike dominated the sneaker market and continues to do so today.

Military influence

Hessian boots were initially used by 18th century German military hired to fight for the British in the American Revolutionary War. When the Duke of Wellington instructed his shoemaker modify them to accommodate trousers, which he preferred over knee-length breeches, the new style became known as ‘Wellington boots’.

US cowboys adapted the style to suit rougher riding – boots were stitched on the outside to prevent buckling and rubbing, which led to the elaborate stitching designs that are popular now.

The ’60s and the rise of the boot

In the 1960s boots received a transformation when Barbara Streisand’s Vogue shoot brought the go-go boots into mainstream culture. The Sixties also saw the Chelsea boot rise to prominence as the footwear of choice for ‘mod’ men – designed originally by Queen Victoria’s bootmaker, the Chelsea boot lives on today in Australian Blundstone work boot styles.

Rock-star couture

In the 70s skinheads began wearing Dr Martens as homage to the working class – because of this, Dr Martens experienced a resurgence in popularity during the 90s grunge phase.

Converse All-Stars were originally an athletic shoe endorsed by basketballer Chuck Taylor but their popularity among musicians saw the shoe become a rock culture stalwart.

The Ramones are credited with pioneering the look that was later emulated by acts such as Kurt Cobain and the Strokes.

“It was punky and snotty to wear sneakers instead of shoes,” says Tommy Ramone. “Punky and snotty was very important for the Ramones.”