From ancient Egypt to Ferragamo
There’s a famous axiom in the world of design that epitomizes the pioneering spirit of early-20th century modernist architecture and that by now has taken on the semblance of a dogma: form follows function. A timeless principle that applies just as well to two elements of footwear, the wedge and the platform, and to their long history.
The origins of the wedge, in fact, go back a long way. They were worn by Egyptian nobles when they went out, to prevent their clothes getting muddy or covered in dust.
In ancient Greece, it was chiefly tragic actors that wore them, to give them greater visibility and scenic presence during performances. They were called buskins and were fairly roughly-made boots with a thick cork sole that was usually hidden from sight by the actors’ long robes.
They were also worn by the courtesans of ancient Greece, the hetairai. To advertise themselves and attract potential clients, they used shoes called baucides with messages carved on the underside of the sole that left tracks on the sand or ground.
The Etruscan wedges took their inspiration from Greek models, but were decorated with more complex designs and fastened with gold straps.
In ancient Greece tragic actors wore buskins to have visibility and scenic presence
Jumping forward in time, we come to the Middle Ages, when flat or stacked clogs were widely used. Over the years, decades and centuries, platforms became higher and higher: the elegant pianelle or chopines came into being, and these became particularly popular in Venice and Spain during the Renaissance.
The pianelle had a primarily practical purpose – women wore them so as not to get their clothes muddy — but they also served to attract the attention of others and show off one’s status: the higher the platform, the more important the noble lady wearing them (some reached a height of 50cm!).
THE 20TH CENTURY AND FERRAGAMO
During the rigid embargo imposed by Mussolini in the 1930s, during the war in Ethiopia, shoe-making materials were hard to come by. Salvatore Ferragamo, who had already made a name for himself on both sides of the ocean, no longer had access to the German steel he needed for the shank, a metal support for the arch of the foot. So he decided to try something different.
He got the idea of creating a wedge made of cork shavings, solid but lightweight and perfectly capable of supporting the foot.
It had an immediate success and some models — such as Rainbow, the multi-coloured suede sandal made for Judy Garland, and the platform sandals covered in pieces of gilded reflective glass designed for the singer Carmen Miranda, — have now become iconic.
After a period of decline between the ‘50s and ‘60s, wedges became hugely fashionable again in the 1970s, in the form of the platform shoes we now generally associate with the Disco music and Glam Rock scene.
The ‘90s, on the other hand, saw the advent of the platform sole Buffalo-style sneaker, which since then has been revisited – in different forms and materials – by numerous brands and is still around today.
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The so-called wedge heel (or slide) is a heel that joins the sole at the front of the shoe, forming a single seamless element.
We talk in general of wedges, to indicate a thick sole that takes the place of a heel and raises the height of the whole shoe.
The material most widely used is wood (particularly cork), which may be covered with leather or fabric, or left bare.
The wedge can also be made of rubber, as in sneakers, and high-tech materials.
The term platform, on the other hand, refers to a thick, raised sole, usually applied to shoes with heels. Platforms make it possible to raise the height of the heel further while making the shoe more stable and comfortable to walk in.