From the comfiest of sneakers to the highest of stilettos, shoes are a key component of any wardrobe. But while loafers and clogs may seem like just another accessory to some, footwear has a rich and fascinating history dating back millennia. So lace up your boots and take a stroll through this list of six incredible facts about shoes.
Long before Jordans and Kobes hit the market, the first athlete to lend his name to a signature shoe was Chuck Taylor, a semiprofessional basketball player from Indiana. Converse created its All Star sneaker in 1917 with the sport of basketball in mind, and by 1921, Taylor had signed on to help sell the shoes out of the company’s office in Chicago. Taylor wasn’t a celebrity in the same way that today’s NBA players are, but as part of his job, he organized promotional basketball clinics for Converse and worked with coaches and athletes all over the country. He became so closely associated with the brand that people started referring to All Stars as “Chuck Taylor’s shoes,” even before his name was physically affixed to the sneakers in the early 1930s.
Within a few decades, other signature shoes followed. In 1958, Celtics star Bob Cousy worked with a company called PF Flyers to design a shoe that sold 14 million pairs in its first year. And in 1973, Puma released the Puma Clyde, named for New York Knicks star Clyde Frazier. Of course, the biggest names in the signature shoe game are Nike and Michael Jordan, who teamed up on the Air Jordan I (the first of many releases) in 1985. Jordan is undoubtedly Nike’s most successful signature athlete, but he wasn’t the company’s first. That title belongs to Wayne Wells, a freestyle wrestler who won gold at the 1972 Olympics. Wells signed a contract with Nike that same year and helped design a wrestling shoe to which he lent his name, paving the way for future athletes to sign on with the brand.
After Neil Armstrong took one of the most consequential steps in human history, the boots he used to do so were discarded on the moon. In fact, both of the Apollo 11 astronauts who walked on the lunar surface — Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin — left behind their overshoes, along with their portable life-support systems. Leaving the gear wasn’t a symbolic gesture; it helped to offset the added weight of collected moon rocks that the shuttle would be taking back. And the astronauts didn’t return to Earth barefoot, either. The treaded overshoes they abandoned were worn atop flat-soled pressure boots (which they kept) for added traction while traversing the moon’s rocky terrain.
In the early 1800s, boots were a popular style among both men and women, though tying them with rudimentary laces and buttons made putting them on difficult. English inventor Joseph Sparkes Hall realized there had to be a better way, and in 1837, he designed the first pair of elastic-sided boots, which he presented to Queen Victoria that same year (the year she ascended to the throne).
This new slip-on boot provided the comfort of slippers with the stability of laced shoes, and became well known thanks to Victoria’s blessing. As Sparkes explained in The Book of the Feet, written in 1846, “Her Majesty has been pleased to honor the invention with the most marked and continued patronage; it has been my privilege for some years to make boots of this kind for Her Majesty, and no one who reads the court circular, or is acquainted with Her Majesty’s habits of walking and exercise in the open air, can doubt the superior claims of the elastic over every other kind of boot.” Hall’s patented design would go on to inspire the modern-day Chelsea boot, which has been worn by everyone from the Beatles to the Stormtrooper characters in Star Wars.
Though they’ve since become a symbol of high fashion, high-heeled shoes originally had more of a practical use. They were commonly worn throughout horseback-riding cultures around the 10th century, and were particularly popular in Persia, where the cavalry found that 1-inch heels added extra stability in stirrups when they stood up to fire their bows. Persia later sent a delegation of soldiers to Europe in the 17th century, which in turn inspired European aristocrats to add high heels to their personal wardrobes. Heeled boots became all the rage among members of the upper class throughout Europe, and in 1670, France’s Louis XIV passed a law mandating that only members of the nobility could wear heels. In the 18th century, the style became increasingly gendered as heels grew in popularity among women. By the start of the French Revolution in 1789, men of the French nobility had largely given up on the trend in favor of broader, sturdier shoes.
Though there’s no exclusive contract, Johnston & Murphy serves as the unofficial footwear provider of U.S. Presidents, having designed shoes for America’s commanders in chief since the company was established in 1850 by William J. Dudley, who offered to make shoes for President Millard Fillmore. (Dudley called his business the William J. Dudley Shoe Company, but his partner James Johnston renamed it after Dudley died and he brought on William Murphy as a new partner.)
In the decades since, Johnston & Murphy has been tasked with crafting a wide variety of presidential kicks, with the smallest being a size 7 for Rutherford B. Hayes and the largest a size 14 for Abraham Lincoln. Some of the more famous styles have included black lace-up boots for Lincoln, black wingtips for President Kennedy, black cap-toe shoes beloved by Ronald Reagan, and black oxfords for Barack Obama, which came in a handcrafted box of Hawaiian-sourced wood.
In addition to their narratives, ancient Greek tragedies and comedies could often be distinguished by the type of footwear the actors wore. Dramatic actors wore a style known as a buskin, a boot with a thick sole believed to be anywhere between 4 and 10 inches high. This set them apart from comedic actors, who wore just thin socks on their feet. It was thought that buskins gave serious performers a more prominent stage presence compared to their humorous counterparts.