High heels, wingtips, work boots, all manner of confining and constrictive shoe, even loafers, have moldered in closets and gathered dust under beds, no love lost. One, uh, friend has basically been barefoot for the past year, padding around the house confident that his toes, unbound, have rediscovered their splayed, prelapsarian selves.
This all has been terrible for the dress-shoe business, if somewhat less so for the shoe-media business, where the headlines have lately pivoted from the likes of “Shoe Repair Stores Used to Be a Good Way to Make a Living” to “Post-Pandemic Shoes: The Hunt.” But before you shell out for those Balenciaga stiletto Crocs or the new Isabel Marant wedge sneakers (“boulders of suede,” as a colleague helpfully described them), archaeology has some advice from the grave: Whatever shoes you choose, let them not be pointy.
Recently, researchers discovered that a “plague of bunions” had visited medieval England, evidently inflicted by the ridiculously pointy shoes fashionable at the time. The team inspected 177 skeletons in Cambridge dating from the 11th to the 15th centuries and found that 18 percent of them, all in the later centuries, showed signs of hallux valgus, a condition wherein the big toe points inward toward the others and the first joint becomes an exposed and sometimes painful protuberance — a bunion.
Hallux valgus is the most common foot deformity today, seen in roughly one in four people, and our shoes are typically to blame. “My grandmother had it, where her big toe was crossed over the top of her next toe and you had that really sharp angle,” said Jenna Dittmar, a paleopathologist at the University of Aberdeen and the lead author on the study. “She definitely wore heels. They weren’t particularly high, but she did wear heels until the day she died.”
“What we found in the archaeological record mirrors very closely what we’re seeing in the clinical literature today,” Dr. Dittmar said. “Individuals, usually older adults, that have hallux valgus are much more likely to fall than are people of the same age who don’t have hallux valgus.”
Pointy shoes had been kicking around continental Europe since at least the 11th century, signifiers of idle luxury, their impracticality a middle toe to the concept of manual labour. One also could not easily kneel, or pray, in such shoes, which were sometimes known as “Satan’s claws.” In 1215, Pope Innocent III prohibited clergy members from wearing, among other things, “shoes with embroidery or pointed toes.” The edict was unsuccessful enough that Pope Urban V tried again in 1362.
It was neither the first nor last time that humans have forced their bodies to fit the vogue; foot-binding began in China in the 10th century and lasted a millennium, overtaking the Victorian corset. “It certainly is something,” Dr. Dittmar said. During the pandemic lockdown, she wore her running sneakers to the lab, which she has largely to herself, and is not particularly looking forward to what comes next: “Every time you go to a conference and you put on your high heels, I think, This is so bad, why do we do this? But it’s fashion, isn’t it?”
Alan Burdick is a journalist with NYT©2021
The New York Times