From the Vaults: Sensible Shoes
I originally thought the title of this FTV was a ripoff of a Steve Martin book, but I was mixed up. Martin’s book was called Cruel Shoes (Steve Martin – 1980 – Grand Central Publishing ). If you have actually read the Sensible Shoes series by Sharon Garlough Brown and thought of those books when you read the title, you are very observant. I can’t tell you much more about either title (Martin’s or Brown’s) because I have not gotten around to reading either of them, but that is actually irrelevant for this FTV. For some odd reason, Cruel Shoes has stuck with me since it first appeared and it was an incident with the WOAS West Coast Bureau that morphed the word ‘Cruel’ into ‘Sensible’ in my mind (more on this later). If you are already thinking, “Okay, bub, why are you talking about the titles of books that you have never read?” Please bear with me. This title just pops in my head anytime my thoughts turn to shoes. Like today.
It came to me again while I was checking out the extended Weather Channel coverage of the late August 2022 flooding disaster in Mississippi. As the correspondent (whose name I didn’t catch) was explaining the confluence of conditions that triggered the flooding, I could not help but notice her shoes. Her male counterpart was sporting what looked to be comfortable rubber soled ‘Sketcher’ type loafers while she was balancing on barely there strapped on spike heels. My first thought was, ‘Oh, those don’t look like sensible shoes.” On a hunch, I started flipping channels and a pattern began to emerge. Over on ESPN’s SportsCenter, there was another male/female duo running down the highlights from Hawaii’s Little League World Series win. Sure enough, he had on what looked to be comfortable, flat bottom slip on shoes. His female broadcast partner was similarly shod as the Weather Channel reporter, only her spike heels were even higher and thinner than her WC counterpart.
“But,” you say, “you are not a woman. You just do not understand women’s fashions.” Both of these statements are true enough, so perhaps someone on the other side of the gender ledger will explain it to me: Why do the men on TV get to sport what appear to be comfortable, sensible shoes while the women wear these spiky looking clogs that force their heels high in the air? How comfortable is it to essentially be toddering around on about 25 percent of their feet? Perhaps there is a very logical reason for this ‘sensible shoe’ disparity so don’t send me angry messages about me bringing gender bias into the shoe world. As soon as they are off air, do they get to kick off the spikes and slip on something else between takes? As they used to say on The X-Files, “the truth is out there.” I am sure if the networks made women wear them, it would be big news and internet memes about reporters being forced to wear cruel shoe styles would abound. Am I wrong to think that this is a fashion choice made by the woman involved?
On two of my visits to the WOAS-FM West Coast Bureau in Oregon, I spent some time roaming the displays at the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History. It is located about a half a block from the main entrance of the equally historical (and now totally remodeled) Hayward Field, the site of 2022’s World Track Championships. One of the most interesting displays there is all about what they say might be the earliest example of human footwear. Luther Cressman began the excavation of dry cave sites in Oregon’s Northern Great Basin in 1930. Among the artifacts recovered from these caves were well-preserved sandals woven from sagebrush bark and other fibers. The sandals were sandwiched between ash layers deposited by the explosion of Mount Mazama 7600 years ago (the end result of this explosive eruption being one of Oregon’s iconic attractions, Crater Lake). When carbon dated in the 1950s, they found the true age of the footwear – more than 10,000 years old! As they say on the Museum’s virtual tour page, “The results show that Fort Rock-style sandals were made from approximately 10,200 to 9,200 years ago (BP) – the oldest directly-dated shoes in the world!”
Ah, yes, but were they sensible shoes? There are several ways to answer the question, “What, exactly, dictates what ‘sensible’ would look like for historic footwear?” First off, we should point out that there are plenty of places in the modern world where going barefoot is still the norm. Going ‘foot commando’(barefoot), so to speak, is okay under some circumstances today. Some even swear that it is much healthier. If so, what compelled ancient people to invent footwear to begin with? In tropical areas, trodding the ground where there are uncountable numbers of stinging, biting, and poisonous creepy-crawly things to navigate through, a protective layer may have been called for. I won’t even get into the certain types of parasites that can make their way onboard a human host via unshod feet. In the northern climes, the creepy-crawly and parasitic organisms are not as big a problem as frozen toes would be. When native Hawiian’s named the sharp chunky pieces of volcanic material in some lava flows ‘aa aa’, they had an explanation for the name: it came from the sound one makes when walking barefoot on it. So yes, the earliest forms of footwear might look primitive to us, but to the inventors, they were extremely ‘sensible’.
In a slightly tangential notion, there has been much debate over recent years about the number of indigenous groups that inhabited the Americas before European ‘discovery’ of these same areas. Some suggest all of the populations from the southern tip of South America to the ‘top’ of North America came across the post-glacial landbridge that existed between Asia and Alaska. Others point out that if this is true, there is no way tropical parasites could have made it to these shores from the Asian-Pacific Ocean region. These hitchhiking parasites could not have arrived here without a significant number of people also arriving by water routes. Some of these parasites spend part of their life cycle in the ground before they infect human hosts, therefore, they could not have survived a many year migration across the frozen north via the landbridge.
As long as we are talking about migration, what about footwear? Can we document migratory patterns via footwear? The Chippewa people (also known as the Ojibwa or Ojibwe) were named for their particular footwear. The name translates as ‘the puckered moccasin people’ taken from the way the stitching on their footwear gave the tops a wrinkled look. The discussion of moccasins will usually stir up the old adage, “Do not judge someone until you have walked a mile in their moccasins.” The style of footwear is decidedly Native American, but alas, the old saying originated from a 1895 poem by the white poet and suffragist, Mary T. Lathrap.
The word itself (moccasin) comes from the Algonquian language Powhatan. Even though there are many kinds of Native American sewn footward designs, the term has been generalized to describe all of them. The differences between the seams and soles were subtle, but different enough that one could identify fellow tribe members by their footwear. It just turned out that the Chippewa (and Blackfoot) were named for their particular style of moccasin. I found a map in a piece called The Complicated History of the Moccasin by Albert Muzquiz (2018) that noted more than 40 moccasin styles for tribes across the U.S. and Canada alone.
The other thing I noticed in the various styles was the degree of decoration present. Some were of a more plain variety, perhaps the everyday work styles, while others were festooned with elaborate bead patterns similar to what one sees worn at modern day Native American festivities.
In the colder climates, the Inuit type Mukluk was created to protect against the brutally intense cold conditions they lived with. Unlike the Ugg-shaped boots commonly marketed today, the true Mukluks usually came in three parts: a low cut, slipper like boot which is slid into a higher middle boot and finally, a fur lined outer-shoe. These northern aboriginal peoples certainly get the full credit for inventing footwear with the most ‘sensible’ feature being the ability to keep their feet warm. The greatest similarity in the North-Eastern moccasins was the gathered toe – it was this puckered, U-shaped detail above the toes that gave the Chippewa their name and was what marked them as true ‘moccasins’. Some have gone farther and noted how the Sami people of the European countries crossed by the Arctic Circle use a similar design. This, along with some physical traits and common linguistic patterns, is used as further evidence that shoe types can possibly help archaeologists trace migration patterns around the world.
In 1936, G.H.Bass’s Weejun shoes became an American fashion ‘must have’. The slip-on design was comfortable and featured a puckered toe that resembled classic indigenous American footwear. The Weejun name, however, was not taken from some unknown tribe, but was a shortened version of ‘Norwegian’. They claimed the style was a revived form of a forgotten Scandinavian design (see the note about the Sami people above). In truth, a similar shoe known as the ‘Tese Shoe’ had been worn in Norway since the early 1800s and it had actually been based on a classic Iroquois design. G.H.Bass tried their best to not dwell on the similarity of their product to the earlier indigenous styles. but the origins were still quite obvious. The modern day penny loafer was clearly based on Native American footwear. I have been a dedicated wearer of penny loafers from my high school days but had never given much thought about their origins.
My own shoe choices over the years have come in both varieties: Sensible and not-so-sensible. I do not remember much about my so-called ‘dress shoes’ in elementary school, but I was always excited to get a new pair of sneakers for gym. Who can forget their first pair of genuine Red Ball Jets? Tennis shoes, gym shoes, or whatever you called them back in the day, were always a sure sign that school was about to start. One could NOT play in the gym without them. Usually it meant a trip downtown to the Washington Shoe Store. When I got tall enough to jump and touch the ceiling at home, I would strap on my new shoes and tear around making fingerprints on the ceiling. That is, until I had to get the step-stool and clean them off.
At some point in high school, I began buying Converse Canvas All Stars. They were cheap and my group of friends just kind of gravitated to them. In another bizarre turn of events, we spent a good deal of our senior year wearing them without socks. Perhaps it was in retaliation for the three previous years of mandatory white socks in gym class or just some dumb fad. We used to go to the Hedgecock Fieldhouse during NMU’s Christmas break to play basketball and swim. My sockless phase ended after I made the mistake of playing full court basketball in canvas shoes with no socks. When my blisters healed, I vowed to never make that mistake again. I continued to sport the Converse All Stars for everything: basketball, tennis, kicking and punting footballs, and hiking in the woods and hills. More recently, Converse All Stars have become trendy again and it makes me chuckle when I see someone wearing them; do they know exactly how old school they are going?
When I started playing tennis with my fellow bus boy John at the Huron Mountain Club, I noticed he wore a particular type of white shoe all the time. He told me they were Jack Purcells and were the most comfortable shoes he had ever worn. John had very wide feet and explained the Purcells were the only shoe he could get in extra wide sizes. The original model was invented in 1935, targeted for badminton players, and marketed as Converse Jack Purcells (Jack Purcell was a world champion in that sport). They were originally made by the B.F.Goodrich company and when Nike purchased Converse in 2003, they became part of that brand. I went to Johnson’s Sport Shop and promptly became a JP wearer myself for the rest of my college days. I can not quite remember why I stopped wearing Purcells. The market for specialized basketball shoes was just starting to rev up when I started teaching so I just kind of gravitated to the next new model. I may check them out again as they are still marketed by Nike.
Remember the fad called Earth Shoes? They were also known as Kalso Earth Shoes for their inventor, Danish yoga instructor Anna Kalso who came up with the design in 1957. It had a ‘negative heel’ design where the sole slanted upward so the toes were higher than the heel. Walking in Earth Shoes felt very much like walking on beach sand with the heel sinking deeper than the ball of the foot. Eleanor and Raymond Jacobs introduced their Earth Shoes in New York City three weeks before the first Earth Day in 1970 and they soon became the counterculture symbol of the decade. Various experts gave different opinions about them being good or bad for one’s feet, but sales still reached $14 million by 1976. Because they could not keep up with the demand for the shoes, the company dissolved in 1977. The brand resurfaced in 2002 after the rights had been purchased by Meynard Designs and as of 2020, the shoes have been taken over by a company called Windsong. The Earth Shoe should not be confused with ‘Earthing Shoes’ which are said to channel electromagnetic energy into the body via the shoe/earth interface. Nor should the original Earth Shoes be confused with a similarly named brand sold at Walmart.
So, how did I come to replace ‘cruel’ with ‘sensible’ shoes in my mind? It actually involves another footwear design that we began calling ‘cripplers’. Before the West Coast Bureau was fully located in the west, Elizabeth, Todd, and our Upper Michigan contributing member Brian traveled from Lansing to Cincinnati to catch a concert by Oasis. Not being that familiar with the concert location in the city, they ended up walking farther than they had originally planned. Elizabeth had picked a stylish pair of boots to wear and by the time they made it back to the car after the show, her feet were in agony. She vowed to, “Never wear those crippler boots again,” to which I responded, “Yes, you must be sure to wear sensible shoes when you need to do that much walking.” Since then, my main descriptions for footwear have been ‘sensible’, ‘cruel’, and ‘cripplers’.
My last observation on the topic for now is the popularity of Dr. Martens boots (aka: ‘Docs’ or ‘DMs’). They first appeared on April 1, 1960 but I didn’t know much about them until they became the go-to accessory for certain hip fashion crowds. Their popularity seems to come and go when certain musicians and celebrities are seen wearing them, they become vogue again. Someone who has actually worn a pair will have to fill me in on the sensibility factor for Docs – are they comfortable or just good looking? I do not know as I have never tried on a pair.
Someday we will have to examine how my mother made me a fashion trend setter by putting me in what are known as ‘Chukka boots’ in 1967, but as I tend to always promise, “That is another story for another day.” Remember, happy feet make a human happy.
Top Piece Video: Yes, The Beatles sing about the OLD BROWN SHOE, but was it sensible?