From farmers in the Pyrenees to high fashion
Esparto (botanical name Stipa tenacissima) is a grass native to territories facing the Mediterranean. Characterised by its short and rather resistant fibres, it has been used to produce rope, baskets, fishing nets and paper for centuries. However, in the Pyrenees – in an area stretching from the Basque Country to Catalunya through southwestern France – since Medieval times, farmers and fishermen have used esparto as a raw material to make simple, comfortable shoes for the hot summer months.
With their sole composed of woven rope and a fabric upper, they took the name from the French espadrillas, which derives from the Catalan espardenya, meaning “made from esparto”. In Spanish they are known, however, as alpargatas, a word deriving from Arabic (albargat means “that which covers”).
While still considered a humble and “poor” shoe, espadrilles started to gain popularity in South America in the 19th century. Their global fame, however, is much more recent and can be traced to an historic Catalan company, Castañer, and the Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly, who started to wear espadrilles in the 1950s, legitimising the model among celebrities (in Hitchcock’s 1955 film To catch a thief both Grace Kelly and Cary Grant wear espadrilles).
The espadrille’s definitive entrance into the world of fashion came with Castañer’s collaboration with Yves Saint Laurent, which in 1972 created a model with a wedge, thus paving the way for the many other models we still see today in the collections of designers and prestigious shoe brands.
Ever since espadrilles’ inception, esparto has not been the only material used to produce the shoe’s characteristic soles: jute (the material most commonly used today) and hemp are also used.
The jute rope is woven by special machines and the form is usually created by hand. Once the sole is sewn, a rubber layer is generally applied to it, which sometimes leaves some of the woven sole uncovered.
There may also be a leather, or natural or synthetic fabric insole.
The sole is then sewn to the upper, which though usually fabric, comes in multiple variations for every budget, and may even feature fine materials or elaborate decorations.
Models with a wedge, inspired by the original by Yves Saint Laurent, feature fabric laces to secure the ankle, though some models use buckles. Over time, the style of espadrilles has been “hybridised” with other footwear models, from moccasins to sneakers.