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Articles >>Shoes


FOOTWEAR AND HOSIERY by Alan Flusser. It is entirely likely that prehistoric footwear consisted primarily of tree bark, plant leaves, or animal hides tied around the bottom of the foot simply to provide protection against rocks and rough terrain. However, it wasn't long before footwear became a touch more sophisticated while at the same time growing somewhat more attractive, to the extent that, as with a hat, a man's status could be judged merely on the basis of what he wore on his feet. In fact, many relief paintings from Egyptian times depict fine-looking sandals of interlacing palms and papyrus leaves worn by royalty along the order of Tutankhamen. Eventually leather, which is pliable, durable, and was easy for man to obtain, became the dominant material used in footwear. As it is a living substance and therefore breathes, it allows air to circulate freely about the feet, adding appreciably to the comfort of the wearer. Historically, the lower classes continued to wear sandals while those of higher position and rank chose to wear intricately designed slippers. In the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, when men's legs suddenly became a focal point of fashion, shoes took on new importance, as highly decorated bows and buckles were added to make them more attractive. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, the pendulum had begun to swing the other way, as shoes took on a more functional look. Styles became rigid, almost clumsy; colors vanished; and footwear was, for the most part, to be found only in black and brown leathers. In this country, Massachusetts quickly established itself as the shoemaking center of the Colonies. Thomas Beard, who settled in Salem soon after arriving on the Mayflower in 1629, is widely considered the pioneer of the American shoe industry. Following his lead, other craftsmen set up shop in many of the small towns surrounding Salem. The industry grew, and by 1768, nearly thirteen thousand pairs of shoes were being exported each year by Massachusetts shoemakers to the other Colonies. Up until the middle of the nineteenth century, shoes were slowly and painstakingly produced by hand. But as soon as Elias Howe's sewing machine was adapted to the tasks of shoemaking, the industry began to join the Industrial Revolution. In the meantime, footwear fashions ran the gamut from slippers to boots, which became popular in the early part of the nineteenth century. There were boots with spring heels, developed in 1835, and there were boots with no heels at all, popular in the middle part of the century. Boots began to fade from the scene somewhat just before the turn of the century, at about the same time that the rubber heel was first introduced. During the first twenty-five years of this century, shoes were rather dull and lackluster. But by the time the 1930s rolled around footwear with more style and imagination began to make a long-awaited comeback. American manufacturers copied styles of English custom shoemakers, who were turning out new models every few months. Brogues became popular and once again color was added to footwear, with black-and-white "co-respondent" shoes (that is, shoes with contrasting colors). From the 1940s to the 1950s a wide variety of shoes existed, yet styles did not change much from year to year and one simply wore shoes until they were no longer in good enough condition to be worn any longer. It wasn't until the 1960s and the advent of the Peacock Revolution that shoe fashion began go change radically, with new models introduced each season. The choices were mind-boggling: platform shoes; sleek, pointed English mod shoes of wild, iridescent colors; boots, from cowboy to hiking to frontier styles; and sneakers. Italian shoes - sleek and lightweight styles produced to go with the European cut suits - flooded the market and immediately became a favorite of the American man. Today the choice remains wide as to the kind of shoe a man can wear. There are men who wear practically nothing but sneakers or running shoes, while others enjoy the opportunity to change styles with each business and social engagement. Hosiery, stockings, or leggings began simply as a binding or wrapping of the legs in order to provide protection. In Europe during the Middle Ages, people tied coarse cloth or skins around their legs, holding them up at the knees by the use of garters. By the eleventh century, when breeches were shortened to the knee, the lower leg was covered by a fitted cloth known as "chausses" or "hose" (probably derived from the Old English hosa). At the time America was first colonized, early settlers were wearing heavy homespun woolen stockings in russets, blues, browns, and gray-greens. For the most part, styles in hosiery closely mirrored the styles being worn back in Europe, with the wealthier Colonial dressers able to afford hosiery of fine silk. It wasn't until the early to middle nineteenth century, however, that knitting mills were established in this country, at which time the stocking industry found a home in several Connecticut towns. By this time, trousers had made their descent to just above the tops of the shoes, and as a result, hose was shortened accordingly. Over the next few decades, due to a need for extra warmth and comfort, hose length extended up, over the calf of the leg, and became known as the "sock" (probably from the Latin soccus, which was a light covering for the foot). It was not until the twentieth century, though, that the hosiery industry began to flourish, as cotton, wool, and combinations of these fabrics in vivid colors and patterns caught the fashionable man's fancy. It was also during this period that sports hose in knitted wool, mixtures of wool and silk, and wool and cotton gained in popularity. This interest in patterns continued until the 1950s, at which time synthetic yarn for hosiery was introduced, permitting the manufacture of stretch hosiery, one-size-fits-all. Retailers, pleased to be able to reduce their inventory, didn't care that the hose was producible only in solid colors. Combined with the newfound interest in patterned trousers, solid hose regained popularity and fancy hose faded from the fashion scene. The industry has yet to recover. While today more patterns and colors are available for sports hosiery, a man looking for stylish dress hosiery has his work cut out for him. Shoes are perhaps the most functional item in a man's wardrobe. And yet, in addition to serving a utilitarian purpose, shoes can often be the most obvious sign of a man's sense of style and social position. As George Frazier often remarked, "Wanna know if a guy is well-dressed? Look down." And as Diana Vreeland, Frazier's counterpart in the women's fashion world and special consultant to the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute, advises concerning the development of a wardrobe: "First, I'd put money into shoes. No variety, just something I could wear with everything ... Whatever it is you wear, I think shoes are terribly important." And they are. They reveal a good deal about the person wearing them. A man who buys fine leather shoes today shows that he respects quality, that he has confidence in his taste and in his future. Like other items of quality apparel, a well-made pair of shoes will give years of fine service if they are properly cared for. They must be of a design, however, that remains stylish through the years. Quality Shoes The key to a quality shoe is the way it's made and what it's made of. Eric Lobb, the great-grandson of the legendary English bootmaker John Lobb, discusses the criteria that go into the construction of a well-made shoe in his book the Last Must Come First. The last is the wooden form around which a shoe is made; hence it also determines the shape of the shoe itself. Lobb's pun, which was directed at the art of custom shoemaking, is actually a good guide fo
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