So you think five inch heels are tall? Try twenty.
Chopines were highly popular shoes in Italy, especially Venice, and Spain during the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, originally desgined as an overshoe or clog that would keep people’s shoes and clothes out of the mud. The origin is somewhat disputed, though most scholars cite eastern and oriental fashion as highly influential in the development of the shoe.
Though mostly worn by women, there were also many men who adopted the trend as well. In addition to helping the rich stay somewhat clean while traversing the dirty streets, chopines also developed as a status symbol. Not only could the wealthy display their elaborate dresses to better effect, but now noble women and courtesans could also display their rank in society; the higher the shoes, the higher the rank they possessed.
Vermeyen, Jan Cornelisz, from The Army Re-embarking at La Goleta, cartoon for tapestry XII in the Conquest of Tunis series, 1535, Wien. Kunsthistorisches Museum
On the left is a lady wearing the more conical Spanish style chopines, supported by some hearty soldiers.
Chopines became a fashion statement during the Renaissance, with cobblers creating increasingly taller styles and and more elaborate designs. Many of the shoes were decorated with leather, brocade, velvet, and jewels. From the shoes that survive today, it is assumed that most chopines were made of wood and cork, to the extent that the majority of 15th century Spain’s cork supplies were designated for the production of these extreme shoes (that’s insane!)
Scholars debate on whether women were actually able to walk around in this contraptions; some claim that with practice, women could indeed be graceful and even dance. Most agree, however, that women wearing these shoes almost always needed the support of others to keep them upright and mobile, and it usually took at least two servants to put on the shoes.
Venetian courtesan by Pietro Bertelli, Engraving, 1589, ”Diversarum Nationum Habitus,” V&A Museum, London
Here is an engraving of a Venetian courtesan, which was apparently once a postcard with a flap that could be raised and lowered to see her chopines beneath.
Check out some of the surviving chopines still around today:
Not only did these ladies have guts and balance, they also had style! I wouldn’t mind a pair of those brocade green ones!
Here you can see an x-ray of the nails in a chopine, holding the top shoe section in place.
I don’t know about you, but I’m seriously impressed. I have NO excuse for being a klutz anymore — how did they do it?? Our heels may be outrageous and crazy today, but there is a lot less clothing involved and way better shoe technology. Nevertheless, they still rocked it…for over three centuries!!
Sorry Gaga, these ladies had you beat centuries ago.