by Sabrina Imbler: Going to foolish lengths for fashion…
Another surviving example Shawcross mentions includes an uncomfortable-looking hunk of whalebone used as a stiffener (also a feature of high-end corsetry). Poulaines also had a sort of sex appeal, being cut to show off the colored hose around a lord’s ankle—considered quite sexy at the time. “It’s a time when tunics are getting shorter and young men would have been showing off their legs,” Keily says. “So low-cut shoes would have accentuated and elongated the leg, all down to that long point.”
Most poulaines that survive today were made of leather, but medieval Europeans would have used every possible fabric, Keily says. The upper echelons of society, for example, used embroidered textiles, velvets, and silks. Such shoes might be hand-painted or etched with intricate patterns. Though these opulent poulaines appear in many medieval paintings, no actual examples survive. The Museum of London has some of the fanciest known poulaines in its collection, all remarkably preserved by the saturated mud of the River Thames.
Poulaines stand out even more because medieval fashion was often governed by clean lines and a practical, chaste minimalism, Shawcross says. (Poulaines also marked a rare period in history when men’s fashion outshone women’s in terms of sheer frill, according to Keily.) Perhaps the best explanation for this confounding flamboyance is that the shoes emerged soon after the Black Death killed 30 to 60 percent of the population of Europe. “It may have been a reaction to a type of austerity,” Keily says. “The plague left a landscape with a lot of people who had lost close family members, a generation of mourning. Suddenly there were less people who had more money to spend on clothing.” So poulaines may have been a kind of retail therapy for coping with the surprise disappearance of 25 million people. Keily points to other fashion trends that followed widespread losses of life, such as the conspicuous designs that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, following World War II.
By today’s standards, poulaines were a long-lived fad. But Shawcross says medieval trends often lasted for a century or more, due to the slow, protracted passage of culture across towns and countries, in the absence of any widely distributed media. Until the 18th century, fashions emerged at the top of society and then slowly trickled down, class by class, often taking years to reach rural areas.
Eventually, the English crown felt the need to intervene, in part because of the lascivious connotations that the increasingly extended toe-tips carried. “People thought the longer the toe, the more masculine the wearer,” Shawcross says. “But some people weren’t keen on that connotation.” Parliament equated wearing the shoes to public indecency, and stepped forward to put limits on a variety of racy fashions: “No person under the estate of lord, including knights, esquires, and gentlemen, to wear any gown, jacket, or coat which does not cover the genitals and buttocks. Also not to wear any shoes or boots with pikes longer than two inches. No tailor to make such a short garment, or stuffed doublet, and no shoemaker to make such pikes,” the 1463 law reads. The only other city known to have taken a stand against the shoes was Paris, which had banned them in 1368.
It was a fashion, and fashions come and go. By 1475, the poulaine had vanished, Shawcross says. Under the reign of King Henry VIII, European footwear made a hard pivot into the wide, box-toed shoes. In response, England later passed sumptuary laws restricting the width of these blocky shoes. “The king had men who would go around trying to catch people, measuring the width of their toes,” Shawcross says.
Source: Atlas Obscura