The World in a Shoe

By: Rose McInerney

The World in a Shoe
January 3, 2017 Rose McInerney

Sonya Bata founded the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, Canada, creating a history of global footwear and shoemaking that might just blow your socks off 1! This unique collection explores style and production and takes a fascinating look at embedded cultures and customs from around the world.

Originally created to protect feet from harsh weather and terrain, shoes have evolved as an expression of social class, wealth and fashion for both women and men.

From hundreds of exhibits in the museum, I’ve selected a few period pieces from various global regions: like this platform 16th century shoe from Italy and Spain. Although vaguely resembling the big clunky style I wore as a 70’s teenager, which had a thick rubber sole and added an extra 2 inches to my height, this “Chopine” was a staple shoe in the wardrobe of an upper class woman. It certainly added height to its wearer and its metal drapings signified wealth. The intricate design handcrafted by artisans helped elevate a woman above the dirty street water and mud, but I can’t imagine the wood and metal platforms were particularly comfortable.

asante_sandalsIn present day Ghana, along the Ivory Coast of Africa, these golden “Asante” sandals were worn by the royal Ntchuafou clan during the 17th century. Gold is considered the highest adornment in their culture and the sandals were worn like crowns. The sandals were gifts sent from heaven and signified the clans’ dominion over the earth. According to legend, they appeared on their ancestors’ feet as they descended from the sky in a bronze vessel.

paduka_shoes_from_jaipur_18th_centuryCertainly the “Asante” sandal was a good deal more comfortable looking than the wash-brush looking shoes from India, pictured here. Topped with gold adornments, these are actually super dressy “Padua” shoes worn by aristocratic women for important events like weddings. These high stilts are circa 18th century, and adorned with a gold toe knob and large floral engraving on top.


One of my favourite shoe designs chinese_evening_shoe_20th_centuryfrom the Bata Shoe Museum is an intricately detailed 20th century Chinese evening shoe.. Studied up close, the color and design are simply gorgeous and the unusual front buckle is reminiscent of the French Baroque fashion period of the 17th century (think King Louis XIV). These evening shoes are unlike any previous Chinese designs, reflecting a more modern, Western influence. A fascinating footnote to these shoes is the pliable leather shape for accommodating the foot binding practice of many Chinese women.


The tradition of binding feet originated in the 10th century Imperial Court as a sign of wealth, and involved young girls soaking their feet before wrapping them up in tighter and tighter bindings to stunt their growth. Binding was equated with high social standing – small feet were considered more attractive even though women had trouble walking. This inability to walk, indicated an elevated social status and announced to all that, this woman was not a common labourer 2.


Thankfully this barbaric practice no longer exists and modern footwear choices for women in China are the same as anywhere else in the world. The end of the Chinese Civil War in 1950 and the Chinese Revolution of the 1960’s paved the way for new social and political values, giving women a more equal “footing” in society. Chinese women actually consume the largest share of purchases in the luxury shoe industry. This increased consumerism of the modern Chinese woman reflects an increase in modern freedoms across marital choice, economic wealth and access to healthcare.

Amongst the most innovative women’s footwear mother_and_child_inuit-1
displayed in the Bata museum are boots from Canada’s Arctic region. This area is the traditional homeland for the Inuit Nunangat, with the climate ranging from polar desert to tundra. The extreme weather in Canada’s Arctic drives design changes because women need to preserve heat and ensuring blood circulation. This is the foremost concern of highly skilled seamstresses, who tailor their boots to fit occupation and social gender.
Traditional inuit boots like these sealskin kamiks (actually made to be exhibited in the museum) are highly decorative and showcase complex designs of multiple fur inlays carefully banded together. However, most women wear plain unadorned boots made from animal skins like caribou, with polar bear fur trim. An added inner stocking maximizes warmth and wearer mobility.


Whether walking through life, the pages of history, or just your bedroom closet, I highly recommend stepping into places that celebrate diverse cultures, varied life styles and innovative ideas. Sonya Bata has done just that by fitting the world in a shoe.

How does the world fit in your shoes? Please share any shoes or boots that show off your cultural heritage or say something about the way you live.

  1. The Bata Shoe Museum
  2. pA


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