Poulaine (Shoes)

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Poulaine (Shoes)

Poulaines, also referred to by other names, represented a distinctive style of unisex footwear characterized by their remarkably elongated toes, which gained popularity across Europe during the Middle Ages. The typical poulaine was crafted from soft materials and featured a toe so elongated, often called a poulaine or pike, that it required filling to maintain its shape. Originating in medieval Poland around the mid-14th century, the trend swiftly spread throughout Europe, reaching the upper echelons of English society following the 1382 union of Richard II and Anne of Bohemia. These shoes remained fashionable well into the 15th century, with sturdier versions serving as overshoes and even influencing the design of the era’s armored sabatons. Despite their popularity, poulaines attracted criticism from Christian writers, who denounced them as symbols of vanity or even demonic. Consequently, monarchs intermittently imposed taxes, restricted their use to nobility, or outright prohibited them. As women adopted poulaines and their toes extended to increasingly awkward lengths, the fashion fell out of favor by the 1480s and saw little resurgence thereafter. Nonetheless, their legacy endured, with influences detectable in later trends such as the British winklepicker boots of the 1950s.

Country : European

Europe
Europe

Name

Poulaines worn in Burgundy c. 1470 near the end of their most fashionable period
Poulaines worn in Burgundy c. 1470 near the end of their most fashionable period

The term “poulaine” in English, pronounced /puˈleɪn/, originates from Middle French “soulers a la poulaine,” meaning “shoes in the Polish fashion,” tracing back to its supposed origin in medieval Poland. These shoes have also been referred to as “pikes” due to their resemblance to the common weapon of that era, as well as “piked,” “peaked,” or “copped shoes.” Additionally, they’ve been known as “cracows” or “crakows,” deriving from the former Polish capital, or simply as “pointed shoes,” “pointy shoes,” or “long-toed shoes.” Terms like “poulaine,” “pike,” “crakow,” and “liripipe” have sometimes been specifically used for the elongated toe itself, leading to occasional confusion among writers regarding their precise usage. Despite being mentioned in a 2014 Vogue article, the term “crakow” for the shoe has become exceedingly rare, to the point of being considered obsolete in the Oxford English Dictionary. Furthermore, the elongated toe was occasionally referred to as a “beak,” although this term was not commonly applied to the shoe itself.

History

Pointed, curled, and elongated shoes have left their imprint on history, tracing back to at least 3000 BC and fluctuating in and out of vogue over the ages. In classical antiquity, the Etruscan calceus repandus was a unisex footwear choice, later becoming synonymous with deities like Juno Sospita under Roman influence. Byzantine fashion saw the emergence of gilt slippers with forward-pointing toes, setting the stage for the pointed-toe trend’s eventual rise in Western fashion during the late 11th century with the pigache. Initially met with ridicule and moral condemnation, these shoes were associated with effeminacy and excess.

A woodcut of Kraków (Latin Cracovia) in Poland from the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle
A woodcut of Kraków (Latin Cracovia) in Poland from the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle

The clergy, poets, and historians alike criticized them, linking them to undesirable traits and behaviors. Despite bans and edicts, pointed shoes, known as poulaines, spread across Europe in the mid-14th century, reaching their peak before declining in the 1480s. England’s association with the style predates Anne of Bohemia’s marriage to Richard II in 1382, although her entourage may have contributed to its popularity. The controversy surrounding poulaines led to various sumptuary laws and edicts, reflecting society’s ambivalence towards this daring fashion statement. Ultimately, poulaines gave way to broader styles by the late 15th century, but their influence endured, echoing in later footwear trends like the winklepicker boots of the 1950s.

Design

Toe Length

Shoe soles from archaeological finds reveal that the length of the point beyond the toes of the foot rarely exceeded 50% of the foot’s length. This observation aligns with depictions of fashionable European men in the late 15th century when poulaines, or shoes with elongated points, were in vogue. As was typical with many high-fashion items, the most extreme examples were worn by the upper classes.

Stuffing

Poulaine toes were filled with stuffing to maintain their shape and provide rigidity. Surviving examples from medieval London show that the points were often stuffed with moss. An Italian chronicler from 1388 also mentioned that horsehair was sometimes used for stuffing.

Tying Up the Toes

While there is no archaeological or medieval iconographic evidence supporting the practice of tying the shoe toes up to the leg, there is literary evidence dating back to 1394 that mentions this practice when the shoes were introduced to England. John Stow, in his 1698 publication A Survey of London, mentions this practice as well, but given the considerable time lapse and lack of thorough historical research in his writings, his account must be approached with caution. His description of Act 4 of Edward IV, which allegedly imposed penalties for shoes exceeding two inches in length, appears to be exaggerated, as the actual act mentions length restrictions but not monetary penalties, parliament involvement, or clerical condemnation.

Health Effects

A study conducted in 2005 examined medieval remains and found that bunions were only present in corpses from the poulaine era. A more recent study in 2021, which analyzed 177 corpses from cemeteries around Cambridge, England, confirmed this finding. It revealed that individuals living in fashionable neighborhoods during the peak of the poulaine fashion were significantly more likely to have bunions, misshapen feet, and FOOSH (fall on outstretched hand) bone fractures associated with falls. Piers Mitchell, one of the coauthors of the study, remarked that people indeed wore extremely long, pointed shoes, similar to those depicted in the television show Blackadder. The study also found that 27% of remains from the 14th and 15th centuries showed pronounced bunions leading to skeletal deformation, compared to only 6% prevalence during the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries. Emma McConnachie from the College of Podiatry noted that these findings indicate that such foot problems have been prevalent for a long time, and the fashion choices of the 14th century caused similar issues to those seen in modern clinics.

Related Footwear

Pattens

Pattens served as protective footwear accessories commonly worn during the late medieval and early modern periods to shield shoes from mud and dirt when outdoors. Crafted primarily from wood and secured to the shoe using leather straps, these accessories were essential for maintaining the cleanliness and integrity of footwear. In some instances, the term “poulaine” referred specifically to the elongated pattens required to safeguard the entirety of the lengthy, pointed shoes fashionable during that era.

Sabatons

Sabatons served as protective footwear worn alongside medieval European armor. During the era when poulaines were fashionable, sabatons sometimes grew excessively long or pointed, hindering soldiers’ mobility. This issue came to a head during the 1386 Battle of Sempach, where the knights of Leopold III, Duke of Austria, found themselves needing to dismount and engage in foot combat unexpectedly. Ill-prepared for this shift, many knights resorted to trimming the tips of their sabatons on the spot to continue fighting. Swiss chronicles recount a significant pile of these shoe tips left behind after the battle, a detail depicted in the 1513 Luzerner Schilling. Surviving sabatons linked to Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor, feature elongated ends tailored for horseback riding but are detachable for ground combat, with visible catches near the big toe area.

Modern Poulaines

Modern poulaines, also known as “elf shoes,” are a contemporary fashion trend inspired by medieval footwear. These shoes are characterized by their long, pointed toes, which extend several inches beyond the wearer’s foot. While historically poulaines were worn by both men and women of various social classes, today they are primarily a fashion statement rather than a practical shoe choice.

In modern fashion, poulaines are often made from leather or synthetic materials and come in a variety of styles and colors to suit different tastes. They are typically worn as a bold accessory, adding a whimsical and unique touch to an outfit. While some may find them challenging to wear due to their unconventional shape, modern poulaines can make a striking statement when paired with the right ensemble.

Despite their playful appearance, modern poulaines have a rich history rooted in medieval fashion. Originally worn as a symbol of wealth and status, these shoes have evolved into a symbol of creativity and individuality in contemporary fashion. Whether worn as part of a costume or incorporated into everyday attire, modern poulaines are sure to turn heads and spark conversations wherever they go.

FAQ

FAQ

Most frequent questions and answers

What were poulaines known as?

During the 14th and 15th centuries, the height of their popularity, pointy-toed shoes were referred to as “poulaines” or “cracows.” These fashionable footwear choices were predominantly seen on men in illuminated manuscripts from that era, yet intriguingly, women also embraced this trend, as evidenced by surviving historical records and images.

What were the long-toed shoes called?

Long-toed shoes, often elongated and tapering to a point, were known by various names such as poulaine, pike, crakow, and liripipe. Interestingly, these terms sometimes specifically denoted the elongated toe itself rather than the entire footwear, leading to occasional confusion among historians and writers attempting to categorize them accurately.

What are pointy shoes called?

Pointy shoes have a rich history spanning various cultures and time periods. They’ve been known by different names depending on their geographic and historical context. Some notable examples include Opanci, traditional footwear worn by Balkan peasants since ancient times; Mexican pointy boots, a modern fashion statement popular in Mexico and the southern United States since the 21st century; Pigache, worn in medieval Europe during the 11th to 13th centuries; Poulaines, a term referring to the distinctive pointed shoes worn in 14th and 15th century Europe; and Winklepickers, a style favored in Britain and elsewhere since the 1960s to the present day.

What is a glider shoe?

The Glider shoe is a specialized slip-on footwear designed for specific industries like food service, hygiene (HACCP approved), and the motor industry. Featuring a 200J composite non-metallic toe cap, the Glider shoe prioritizes safety while offering comfort and ease of use. It meets ISO 20345 standards, making it an ideal choice for workplaces where protection and compliance are paramount.

On what part of the body was a poulaine worn?

Poulaines, often referred to as “crakows” in English, were a distinct style of footwear popular in Europe during the late 14th and early 15th centuries. These shoes were characterized by their elongated, pointed toe that could reach extraordinary lengths, sometimes even extending several inches beyond the wearer’s actual foot. While the poulaine was primarily worn on the feet, it also had a significant cultural and social significance, reflecting the wearer’s status, fashion sensibility, and even political affiliations.

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