A Visual History of Shoes

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by Emmy Blotnick

Want to trace the roots of your snazzy computer-enabled running shoes? It begins with a foot bag.

50,000—20,000 BCE

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Cave paintings show men wearing primitive baglike foot coverings made from animal hides, grass, and bark. Resourceful? Definitely. Stylish? Only if you like the baggy look.

3500 BCE


Ancient Egyptians pioneer the world’s first flip-flops using papyrus, flax, and palm. The shoes are also the first to have soles custom fitted for right and left feet. No wonder everyone wants to walk like an Egyptian.

2000 BCE

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Indians popularize knob sandals—flip-flops with straps held together by a giant knob. Since cows are sacred to Hindus, the footwear is crafted from velvet. Prince would approve.

1100 BCE

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Tiny four-inch lotus blossom shoes are all the rage in China thanks to foot binding, which leaves trendy women unable to walk. Bound feet become a status symbol for ladies of leisure who don’t need to work or walk to markets. The practice isn’t outlawed until 1912.

794 CE


The Japanese begin to favor geta shoes, which are more or less flip-flops done clog-style. The sandals’ wooden platforms range from two to 12 inches and raise the wearer above common people. By the time the style migrates to Turkey, the shoes are made even more fun when they’re renamed kip-kaps or kub-kobs, for the sound they make while walking.

5th–15th Century CE

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Weird-looking, short-lived styles begin to surface in medieval Europe, including square- toed “duckbill” shoes and sabbatons (metal shoes worn with armor). The former are meant to be fashionable but make people waddle, while the latter protect feet against injury but are too heavy for anyone but Iron Man to wear on a regular basis.

15th–16th Century CE

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Towering platforms called chopines become must-haves for European society ladies—the higher the chopine, the fancier the lady. But the shoes make walking so tough that wearers need attendants. Basically, chopine devotees were slaves to fashion—Lady Gagas before there was Lady Gaga.

19th Century CE


Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, has his shoemaker create a softer version of an old military boot. Later, the shoes are cast in waterproof rubber and become wellies, the preferred boot for stomping in puddles.

19th Century CE


Shoes start to take the classy, classic form we know, with men favoring loafers and brogues while women wear heels that allow them to actually walk. Good work, mankind!

20th Century CE


Men’s shoes evolve into lighter shoes in leather, rubber, and canvas. Sneakers get their name because the soles are so quiet you can sneak up on somebody, the intersection of “highly functional” and “mildly creepy.”

21st Century CE


So far, the 21st century has had its share of innovative fashion nightmares: Astroturf-soled sandals, flip-flops with beer bottle openers in the sole, Crocs, those toe-separator running shoes. On the plus side, at least bag shoes haven’t made a comeback with fans of the trendy Paleolithic workout ... yet.

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