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Throughout history and across civilizations, the humble shoe, once mere protection for our tender feet, has evolved new meanings. Today, shoes are signalers of taste and markers of status. They are taking us on fresh paths, integrating new technology to become more sustainable while helping push the boundaries of human performance.


Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores the inner lives of some remarkable thinkers. I’m Jim Cotter, and on this episode, “Walk a Mile With Me.”

Throughout history and across civilizations, the humble shoe, once mere protection for our tender feet, has evolved new meanings. A signaler of class, a marker of status. Today’s shoes are taking us on fresh paths, integrating new technology to become more sustainable while helping push the boundaries of human performance.

Yaara Keydar: So many people relate to the idea that if you have the right shoes, you’ll be able to go places. Shoes are also related to us going through paths and taking bigger leaps and they are really connected to us going between worlds and really getting our dreams come true.

That’s all ahead on Articulate.

You may at some point have been told to imagine what it would be like to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Not run a marathon in their socks or garden on their gloves. No, walk in their shoes. Because shoes tell the best stories. They contain intimate details about what it feels like to be us. The great actor Laurence Olivier is said to have built every character starting with their footwear. He knew that shoes were more than fashionable, they were foundational. They can determine how we occupy space, how we stand, move, and ache.

Carmen Artigas: And shoes tell us more than anything in our garments. There’s so much engineering that goes into it.

But shoes can also set a tone, convey our priorities, who we think we are, and even where we think we’re going.

Keydar: We look at people and sometimes we just look at their shoes and we have a feeling that we know them and we can read them. Fashion is like a language.

Many of Tuan Le’s shoes are collectibles coveted by so-called sneakerheads around the world. But he himself is not a collector. Le is a designer who spent over 30 years creating cult classics for brands like Ugg and Reebok, but earning a place in fashion history was never his goal.

Tuan Le: I can honestly say that I never tried to create status symbol. First question I was asking, “Who’s wearing this and what are they wearing it for?” And if they work and somehow they became a star, that’s amazing. That’s never really been my intention.

And Tuan Le’s focus on function is really nothing new. Because, says designer, sustainability consultant, and curator Carmen Artigas, “Shoes’ original job was protection”.

Artigas: Because if we start at the beginning, why do we wear shoes? And basically, it’s because we are very delicate as a species. We don’t have hooves or claws. So we have a certain level of intelligence that will allow us to protect ourselves within the landscape. Let’s say you living in the mountains in Tibet, well, it’s very harsh weather, so if you look at the Mongolian boots, there are several layers of leather, and then there’s a rising toe. So, that’s to protect your foot against rocks in the mountain landscape.

The oldest known shoes, the Fort Rock sandals, are about 10,000 years old, found in Oregon’s Fort Rock Cave in 1938. Today they’re on display at the University Of Oregon museum, begging questions about their long lost owners.

Artigas: Where’s the person? What happened to the person? There’s a story. There’s an absence of a presence, when you see empty shoes, right?

AJC: Right, it’s actually a part of military funerals in certain countries that they bring the soldier, the great general, they bring his horse out and his boots are in the stirrups turned backwards to signify his absence. So it’s even been ceremonialized the idea of empty shoes.

Artigas: Yes.

Shoes are intensely symbolic. They might mark where someone stood, what they stood for, or what stood in their path. Hence why fashion historian and curator Yaara Keydar is so fascinated by them. Her past exhibitions have used shoes to walk the fine line between fashion and art.

Keydar: We had glass shoes by an artist called Boris Shpeizman, and there was a pair of wooden shoes inspired by the Jenga game. And there was another pair of shoes made of silicone by a designer named Tzuri Gueta who is based in Paris, and he invented a patent-protected process to inject silicone through lace. And it’s on one hand technology and cutting edge technique or a process, but on the other hand it looks very organic. It almost looks like something you took out of the sea. Shoes have this ability to communicate and to correlate to so many other worlds and they are so related to a broader cultural context. So I think this is what defines the power of shoes I would say.

When Bette Midler said, “Give a girl the right pair of shoes, and she can conquer the world,” she wasn’t talking about combat boots. It was a comment about the fact that a convincing costume can secure entry into social spheres where we may not really belong.

Keydar: So many people relate to the idea that if you have the right shoes, you’ll be able to go places. Shoes are also related to us going through paths and taking bigger leaps and they’re really connected to us going between worlds and really getting our dreams come true. And if you think about it, it’s exactly what happens to Cinderella. The shoes are her ticket into a new world and they are a transformative object and if you think about it the whole fairytale revolves around shoes.

Shoes in fairytales never look uncomfortable or even downright painful, but when the same standards of beauty and elegance are applied to real life, it’s not as glamorous as it seems. One of the most infamous known examples of this is Lotus foot binding, practiced in China from the 10th through the early 20th century. Young girls would endure this custom of breaking and binding their feet in order to make them look smaller, more dainty. While it seems archaic today, it was a symbol of beauty that many looked up to.

Artigas: You would pick a child, a girl, with good bone features. Because if you’re gonna invest in that process, that is gonna provide her the best marriage possible, the best quality of life, you want to choose a girl that will become beautiful. So you have to start with the bone features in her face. Then you go ahead and at four years old, you start binding the feet and so there were certain sizes of the shoe that are like two and a half inches big. And they themselves would have to stitch these shoes. They learn how to make their own footwear. So, by the time they’re an adult, they’re walking like stilts basically. That meant they didn’t have to do any housework, any work at all. They had servants to provide for them, but when the Chinese revolution arrived, those women were left stranded. Basically, they ended up working in the fields, handicapped with those feet.

AJC: This would have been painful for these women. I mean, they would have gone through their lives with these bound feet. Were they in constant pain? I imagine they had arthritic problems and rheumatic problems later in life.

Artigas: Well, even today, if I go and buy the wrong size of shoe myself, I will injure my spine. Because you start walking, and to avoid the pain you start shifting your weight and then you shift the balance of your hips and then your spine will be injured, it becomes misaligned. So, imagine what happened to those kids.

Lotus shoes underline how integral footwear can be to portraying and upholding social status.

Artigas: Nobility used to set the stage for what to wear. And because this is part of the myth and the history, there were interbred marriages. So they would happen to have certain birth defects. And in their situation, they could cover them up because they could afford to dress themselves elegantly and then disguise that personal defect. So, certain fashions came up because of the nobility. And you have Henry the 8th with gout, tremendous gout that was very painful, and they had to devise a shoe for him that was extremely wide. And he was also overweight. Tall and overweight and with gout. So these feet look like duckbills and that was a little bit of the nickname of the shoe back then. So, if you look at the Tudor era, you can see the shoes as a broad spectrum in fashion and also arriving to the armor. His armor had the same shoes style.

More often than not, the shoes of the wealthy and noble stood for more than comfort. They were crafted to send signals to others. But the symbolism of shoes has evolved from a simple calculation of have versus have not to include more nuanced, complex social cues. In ancient Egypt, pharaohs wore shoes with their enemies printed on the bottoms so they could stomp upon them as they walked. In the 1600s, King Louis the 16th of France took the bottoms of shoes so seriously, he legislated them.

Keydar: You were only allowed to wear shoes with red soles if you belonged to the court of Louis the 14th. And this is really interesting if we think of Louboutin, of course, and how everything has a history.

Today’s red bottom Christian Louboutin shoes are walking status symbols. One of the most luxurious brands around, on par with the likes of Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo, these high-end designer high heels evoke a powerful aura of luxury, femininity, and sex appeal. But platform shoes haven’t always been thus. At certain points in history, they’ve been downright practical. In ancient Greek theater, they elevated performers above the audience. In 15th century Venice, they kept courtesans dry. And in 16th century Persia, they gave soldiers a battlefield advantage.

Artigas: They were wearing a certain type of footwear with hooks in the heel. So they could hang onto the stirrup, and still work with their sword. So they could fight off like even hanging from the sides and not fall. Because thanks to that hook they could stay on the horse. But once they dismounted, they had a different posture. They looked magnanimous, taller. And when those same Persian warriors had to go to Europe to request help to fight the Ottomans, the Europeans were very impressed by the posture. So, that’s what they say happened as a catalyst to create the first, the original high heel shoes in France for example and high heels were worn by men before women.

Keydar: It became a symbol of masculinity rather than femininity. And so men were wearing heels and during the 17th century, heels for men became very popular but also for women. And they went out of fashion in the 19th century, it became very gendered. High heels became a gendered object. And so, instability was left for women and men started wearing flat shoes. The importance of mobility has a lot to do with capitalism and with the industrial revolution and with men being more active, having an active role in the world as businessmen. Women’s role unfortunately was to represent the wealth of their husbands and to convey the family status.

But heels are not just a pedestal for a woman. Like the Persian warriors who appeared so imposing in their heeled shoes, women today also find that their altered posture in heels can have social and psychological effects.

Artigas: It’s a sort of contortion because your chest is pushed out, your butt is out, calves are stiffened, so you get an elongated proportion, and you move different. So yes, psychologically it works very well. So it was a tool for women to have a certain power over men. So yes, it worked both ways.

Though mastering heels has been proven possible, there’s still always such a thing as too high, or at least there has been since the 1950s when European designers first invented stilettos, fashion’s ultimate challenge to gravity.

Keydar: They come up with a way to insert a metal rod into the heel. And this makes the heels stronger, first of all, and you can go higher for the first time now. Heels do not break. And so this is when the stiletto as we know it today is born and from there it just went up. And I think that if we think about high heels in the 90s and 2000s, they become an object of desire and they do not necessarily need to be useful. So, this is when they detach from everything we know about shoes, and then go into a new realm where you can just place the object, just look at it, you don’t necessarily need to wear it, walk in it, or use it in any way.

Whether they’re useful or not, they are a source of endless fascination for Yaara Keydar. Part of her latest exhibition, The Ball, at the Design Museum Holon, Israel, imagines how Cinderella slippers might’ve changed over the decades.

Keydar: The story of Cinderella is being told for hundreds of years so in every period it looked completely different. So, that orange box behind me is the 3D printer that I’m working with. And I’m working with a 3D modelist, his name is Asafrib and he actually sculpts in 3D the different Cinderella slippers from different periods in history, and at night I print Cinderella slippers.

But 3D printing shoes isn’t just an artistic exercise. It could be the future. Tuan Le and the Japanese company Mizuno, are preparing to launch a line of 3D printed shoes at the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. The concept is novel, but it’s not a novelty. If all goes to plan, it will revolutionize the shoe industry.

Le: If you walked up, there’s a flap that will come down and you stand on top of it. It will measure your feet right away. So, all the arches, all the heel, all of that will be taken in, left and right separately, and it will print the shoe right there in front of you. So, if the shoe is made correctly, you don’t need an insole.

These days, shoe designers have gotten very good at compensating for our various natural weaknesses, sometimes too good. In early 2020, Nike’s Vapor Flight Trainers were banned from competition by World Athletics Authorities as a means of upholding the integrity of elite competitions and making sure it was the racers competing and not their shoes. But for all the impact a pair of shoes can have on a runner’s speed, stamina, and stability, they can’t fix anyone’s gait, a fact which caused some turmoil about 10 years ago when shoes with toes first became popular. For the amount of freedom toe shoes provided the wearer, the lack of support for weaker feet proved problematic for some, often doing more harm than good.

Le: If you are at a certain kind of weight for your size and you have a certain kind of motion in the way you run, it will work fine. But I’ve seen so many people who try those things on and they get injured because they are a little bit heavier than their size and the way they move their feet, is slightly different. Because I think for so many thousands of years, we have learned how to run a certain way and DNA and all that. So some people hit their heel a certain way, you are in for big injuries for that if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Tuan Le’s 3D printed shoe technology isn’t just beneficial for performance, it’s also making shoes more accessible and more sustainable.

Le: But can you see, environmentally friendly, there’s no shoes to be shipped anywhere, there’s no giant freight, shipping the container across, the shoe is made right in front of you. The 3D will go back and forth and print the shoe. And within probably half an hour, maybe they can do it faster, but maybe half an hour, you see the shoes being made right in front of you. And you take it out, you go home.

And it’s a good time to find more sustainable alternatives. Current trends of over-producing then incinerating excess are ravaging the environment. In the past few years, we’ve manufactured more than 24 billion pairs of shoes per year, for a planet with only 7.8 billion people.

Artigas: That’s three pairs of shoes per human. We don’t need that. We are creating a tremendous excess. So, we should look into consuming long lasting shoes, because up until the 1960s, at least men used to inherit the shoes from their father. There were really well made shoes and very classic styles.

AJC: These really expensive shoes, are they worth the money in terms of their durability? Or is it just all about the look?

Artigas: Yes, no, they are worth it. There is a friend of mine, his name is Marcell Mrsan. He is from Hungary and he makes shoes by hand. And he has a tremendous following on Instagram. And he showcases video after video, each procedure, how you sew the last ,and it’s just gorgeous. And it takes 15 years to master this craft, so it’s not anyone can do it. So, once you go in this direction of purchasing handmade shoes, then you never go back. It’s comfortable and it’s you, it acquires your personality because from the beginning it’s a conversation. So yes, it’s another planet, yeah.

Another sustainable solution is making shoes with recycled materials. Creating them to fit on-site with no shipping miles is even better. And this is exactly what Tuan Le is creating with the Texas-based brand Twisted X.

Le: So, basically the upper is made out of a hundred percent recycled plastic and fabric, the mid-sole is made out of all the trash that had been thrown away in the factory. They grind them all up into tiny little pieces and they push them together again as a new mid-sole. And then rubber, I’m working with a company in Italy, that they take all the pieces of old rubber, grind them all up, and re-make them again. But I put all three things together, and they look really nice. So these are basically just garbage shoes, plastic bottles that grind into fabric, old foam from the past, old rubber from the past, making new shoes again. They’re gonna be so beautiful, so cool to wear.

It’s interesting to consider shoes at a time when so many of our relationships with them have recently changed. These days, shoes are more likely to be armor than adornment. Fashionable collections stand to attention but no duty calls.

Keydar: I really miss going out and wearing fancy suede red ballerina shoes, and glittery shoes that I just don’t wear. I have nowhere to wear them to right now, unfortunately. The nice shoes become an object that is really, like in the good old days, is something that you wear for special occasions and you match the shoes to the event where you’re going and this is something we at some point stop thinking about.

As fashion-forward shoes travel to the back of our minds, it might be a perfect opportunity to start thinking more about our actual feet. Carmen Artigas believes that spending more time barefoot allows us to tap into the power of some of the most oft-overlooked and wildly underappreciated parts of the body.

Artigas: But you know what I discovered? And this is thanks to an experience I had traveling in India for four months, that you had to take off your shoes and leave them outside. And then a lot of body language is in your feet. So if you’re having a meeting or you’re tense or something you start contracting your toes or something, so there’s a lot of body language in our feet and it’s disguised somehow.

Today we in the west have the luxury of taking shoes and our feet for granted. Because luckily there are people who’ve spent their lives thinking about them for us. Shoes have become an intrinsic part of human life, whether we rely on them for support, protection, or play. They’ve become an extension of ourselves and the choice of what to wear if any at all will follow us into the future.