Saturday, September 25, 2010

Hindsight - Not Your Momma's Platform Heels!

“Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” -Oscar Wilde

Today I introduce yet another segment. As you may have deduced from the quote featured above, I will use "Hindsight" to discuss the amazing and peculiar trends of days gone by which, in retrospect, might seem a bit silly.

As I'm sure many of you know, Lady Gaga has had mixed reviews about her wardrobe for this year's MTV Video Music Awards, including a dress made of raw meat (not pictured) and a pair of Alexander McQueen's signature "Armadillo" shoes:

I've heard many complaints about these heels - though I quite honestly think she deserves praise for putting on these babies - but let's take a trip back in time and explore the history of the chopine.

Chopines (or Zoccoli, as they were called in olden days) were platformed over-shoes that became popular towards the end of the Dark Ages in Renaissance Europe. Originally intended to keep the hem of a lady's dress from dragging in the mud, the chopine (and the added height given by it) became a status symbol. They were most popular in Spain and parts of Italy - Venice and Florence, specifically - and hit their highest in the 17th century.

For all intents and purposes, you might be wondering exactly why these are a trend we would look back upon and ridicule, especially when compared to McQueen's "Armadillos". Here is why:

These zoccoli are around 20 inches tall! To say that these over-(the top)-shoes were impractical would be a gross understatement. In fact, the women who wore these gargantuan things needed attendants to walk with them in order to keep their balance. The fashion was often ridiculed in literature of the time, as evidenced by this "smutty" caricature:

Contrary to what this drawing presents, there is some conjecture as to whether or not a lady's skirts would have covered the chopines... Here's an example of women who showed off their zoccoli:

Notice how these Spanish women all leave their chopines clearly visible beneath their ringed "verdugado" skirts (to clarify, these women are fully clothed - these earliest known ancestors to the hoop skirt and cage crinoline featured the wooden hoops in the outermost skirt). Clearly different women chose to wear them in different ways. I think the most  obvious way to tell if a certain zoccoli was covered or not is to look at how ornate the decoration is. Of the following two examples, the first would probably have been covered by the skirt whereas the second, more delicate example may have been worn to a ball or party and might have been proudly displayed - after all, they were a status symbol.

Of course, the fact that it was a status symbol is also a matter of debate amongst experts. Some say that only Venetian courtesans wore these high over-shoes to make themselves more visible to clients. Others say that zoccoli were reserved for the most prominent female Venetians. Much like Francis Classe, I believe that both women would have worn these shoes, considering the lavish gifts Venetian men would have had to lay upon their courtesans to keep their interest, and then on their wives to keep them quiet. It's not too difficult to imagine a great social battle between the Ladies and Mistresses of Venice... Female competition is the only logical explanation I can think of that might lead to 20-inch chopines.

Hope this was insightful and entertaining - and hey, maybe next time you complain about the four-inch heels you wore to go clubbing you'll remember what these women endured for fashion!

Hoping sincerely that none of your are ever subjected to such tremendous heels,
Nostalgically Yours

Thanks to the following sources for information and pictures:
Francis Classe
Museum of Fine Arts Boston
Metropolitan Museum of Art New York
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  1. What a great post, wonderful images.
    Chopines would actually be practical in present day Venice during acqua alta which means "high water". What better way to keep your feet dry?
    I think the real question here is why were debilitating fashions ever popular back then and now.
    The answer for me, is simple, money. Working women had to walk, move, etc. without assistance to survive.
    Only the wealthy or "kept" women could afford to cripple themselves as they led a life of leisure.
    I noticed shortly after 9/11 that NYC women were wearing more practical shoes, nobody ever acknowledged this but it was clearly out of fear and the need to run fast if need be.
    David, NYC

  2. Fabulous post! Imagine trying to walk in some of those! Have a great Sunday xx

  3. This almost makes me want to wear flats.



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