Why Were Medieval Europeans So Obsessed With Long, Pointy Shoes?

Going to foolish lengths for fashion


At a royal Parisian wedding the standard footwear was very pointy. CHRISTOPHEL FINE ART/UIG VIA GETTY IMAGES

IN 1463, LONDON OUTLAWED THE shoes of its fanciest men. These dapper lords had grown ridiculous in their dapperness, and had taken to ambling streets shod in long, carrot-shaped shoes that tapered to impish tips, some as long as five inches beyond the toe. These shoes were called “crakows” or “poulaines” (a term also used to refer to the tips alone), and the court of King Edward IV eventually found them offensive enough to pass a sumptuary law prohibiting shoe tips that extended over two inches beyond the toe.

Perhaps one of the silliest and most fascinating trends in medieval fashion, these shoes probably first emerged around 1340 in Krakow, Poland—both names refer to this origin—according to Rebecca Shawcross, the author of Shoes: An Illustrated History. Shawcross also serves as the shoe resources officer at Northampton Museum and Art Gallery in England, which claims to have the world’s largest collection of shoes (at 12,000 pairs, but alas, just one intact pair of poulaines).

Europe had flirted with long-toed footwear since the 1200s, but never to this length, or with this saturation. The lords and, to a lesser extent, ladies of 15th-century Europe wore these shoes almost exclusively for over a century. Every person who could afford shoes wore poulaines, though the longer tips were generally reserved for nobility who could afford to wander around in footwear seemingly designed for pratfalls.

A Poulaine shoe with ankle strap and plunging front
This poulaine, uncovered on the Thames, features an ankle strap and a sexy, plunging front. MUSEUM OF LONDON

For the glitterati of medieval Europe, poulaines were less a fad than a symbol. “If you were a man of status and you had enough wealth, you wanted to show that off,” Shawcross says. “And to do that, you had to take the toe to the extreme.” Shoes with absurdly long toes were expensive and would clearly impair the wearer from efficiently partaking in any kind of physical labor. So they were also an indicator of leisure and luxury, free of extraneous effort or the tyranny of practicality.

Poulaines—like babies or uncorseted bosoms—could not support themselves. In order to keep the tips erect, medieval shoemakers stuffed them with soft organic material, often moss, hair, or wool. “Without a stuffed toe, it gets quite floppy,” Shawcross says. “It doesn’t look like it would have been worn by someone of status at all.” The material also helped prevent the tip of the poulaine from curling when wet, according to Jackie Keily, senior curator at the Museum of London, which boasts one of the most impressive collections of poulaines. One shoe in particular, recovered from an archaeological excavation on the waterfront, boasts a modest tip but a delicate leaf pattern.

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