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Chop-chop-chopines: a pair of seventeenth-century Venetian shoes

Luisa Coscarelli

 

The current fashion craze for platformed sandals, heels, or flat shoes was not started this, last, or the season before, but already popular in Renaissance Italy. People of lower social classes and the poor wore wooden platforms as cheap footwear that protected their feet from dirt on the streets and fields. This idea of protection was soon picked up by higher-ranking men, and wooden platforms were introduced as worn strapped to men’s poulains[1] in order to protect the leather of the shoes. The next step of evolution is thought to be from male to female footwear and voilà chopines were born, and this green example is our object of the week.[2]

Pair of Chopines, unknown maker, 1600 - 1620, Venice, made (hand sewn) of wool, leather, silk velvet, silk ribbon, silver-gilt thread, gilt metal, bobbin lace, Museum no. 929&A-1901, Image ⓒ Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Pair of Chopines, unknown maker, 1600 – 1620, Venice, made (hand sewn) of wool, leather, silk velvet, silk ribbon, silver-gilt thread, gilt metal, bobbin lace, Museum no. 929&A-1901. Image ⓒ Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This pair of chopines is made from a variety of materials including wood, textiles, and metal. Both shoes are straight, meaning not distinguishing between the right and left foot – apparently not an uncommon feature at the time. The single strap is decorated with a tangle of silver-gilt thread, which is applied to the green silk velvet. The soles are reinforced with leather and have diamond-shaped cuttings, possibly in order to create an anti-slip effect for feet dressed in silk stockings.

Their platform is made of wood and potentially hollowed in order for the shoes to have an appropriate weight. The wood is covered up with green silk velvet, on top of which one finds silk ribbon. The two rows of ribbon are secured to the platform with the help of rivets and emphasise its distorted hourglass shape.

These chopines are interesting in that most other examples have a platform that covers the length of the foot, whereas this pairs’ platform is confined to the ball and arch of the foot, thus giving the heel little to no support. Therefore, one wonders how walking in these shoes would have been. The slightly tilted form would have surely helped to keep most of the weight on the ball of the foot and the toes, and possibly even facilitated the motion forward. Standing, however, must have been an exercise in balance. Luckily most women wearing these shoes in Renaissance Venice are reported to have had one or two servants helping them to walk.

This pair of chopines is modest in its height and with ca. 9 centimetres would have fit nicely into the regulations that were set up in Venice for these kinds of shoes – a height between 7 – 10 centimetres was acceptable, anything above that was penalised with a fine of 100 lira. Concerns about this type of footwear were manifold in all of Italy. People did not only fear for a woman’s physical welfare – pregnant women were said to have fallen and miscarried as a consequence – but also their piety, conformity to their gender, and the excessive display of wealth.[3]

Especially religious men condemned the elevating footwear as being a sign of dishonesty and indecency. The saint Giovanni da Capestrano (1386-1456) assured that long dresses were created for women in order to hide their feet and chins – the vilest parts of the human body – as a sign of honesty and decency.[4] Changing ones physical appearance with the help of chopines was a sign of deceit and dishonesty. In addition, they defied the length of a woman’s dress and made feet and potentially chins visible, which would have been improper.

This argument, however, appears to go against an advantage that women saw in wearing chopines. An increase in height meant that more fabric was needed for a dress, and since good quality fabrics were expensive, an increase in fabric meant an increase in cost of the garment. Subsequently, wearing height-enhancing footwear not only meant attention through a heightened build, but also through a heightened display of wealth. This would only be added to by having one or more servants helping to walk at all times.

Therefore, the function of chopines was not solely to draw attention to oneself through increased height, but also through increased wealth on show. Whereas this pair of chopines would have been used to do this in the home, there are extreme examples of the design, and also more modest ones in term of their decoration.

Pair of Chopines, unknown maker, ca. 1600, Venice, made of punched kid leather and pine, Museum no. T.48&A-1914, Image ⓒ Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Pair of Chopines, unknown maker, ca. 1600, Venice, made of punched kid leather and pine, Museum no. T.48&A-1914, Image ⓒ Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

With a breathtaking 19.5 centimetres height at the heel, the chopines seen in image 2 are an impressive and extreme example of this type of footwear. Although modest in decoration they would have given their wearer considerably more height, and might have made many women taller than men – a gender subversion that was seen as problematic. At the same time it is thought that the higher chopines were, the wealthier their wearer.[5] Arguing like this means that the rather humble ornamentation of the shoes does not necessarily make a statement about their owner’s wealth.

Pair of Chopines, unknown maker, ca. 1580 - 1620, Spain, made of cork and silk damask with stamped decoration in the insole, Museum no. T.419&A-1913, Image ⓒ Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Pair of Chopines, unknown maker, ca. 1580 – 1620, Spain, made of cork and silk damask with stamped decoration in the insole, Museum no. T.419&A-1913, Image ⓒ Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

A different example is a second green pair in the V&A’s collection from Spain. Although these shoes are higher than the green Venetian chopines their decoration does not include precious metal thread and its platform is made from cork rather than wood. Whether cork was cheaper than wood and used due to that I am not entirely sure, however, it might have been a deliberate design choice to go with the material. Cork would have relieved the shoes of weight and probably also given the foot more of a cushion to walk on. Thus these chopines might have been more comfortable for the woman to wear. Another reason for saying this are the silk ribbons that would have secured the foot at the front and with ribbons wrapped around the ankle. Then again comfort was not a strived for element of these shoes. Their absurd heights meant that walking was awkward and difficult to impossible, thus showing that there was no need for their wearer to walk swiftly and comfortably. As the V&A’s collection website says: “[t]hey represent one of the most impractical fashions of their day”[6], and provide us today with wonder and amazement about long-gone footwear fashions.

 

 

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[1] A type of medieval men’s shoe that was pointy and made of leather. They were popular in both the end of the fourteenth and end of the fifteenth centuries, and could reach a tip length of 20 – 25 cm. Apparently the top was often stuffed with soft materials like moss or wool to help it keep its shape. Source: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O74164/fragments-of-a-unknown/

[2] Michelle A. Laughran and Andrea Vianello, ‘ “Grandissima Gratia”: The Power of Italian Renaissance Shoes as Intimate Wear’, Ornamentalism: the art of Renaissance accessoires, edited by Bella Mirabella, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011), pp. 253 – 289 (246).

[3] Laughran, Vianello, ‘ “Grandissima Gratia” ‘, p. 265.

[4] Laughran, Vianello, ‘ “Grandissima Gratia” ‘, p. 261.

[5] http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/chop/hd_chop.htm

[6] http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O74599/pair-of-chopines-unknown/

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Have you seen any objects that intrigued you lately? Perhaps you have encountered something that piqued your curiosity in a museum or gallery (or in a shop or in the street?), or as part of your art or design practice, as part of your research, or as part of your daily life. Please don’t be shy! We welcome submissions on objects of all sorts, between 500 and 1,500 words, and we do ask that you own the rights to your images or use those belonging to the V&A.  If you aren’t sure if your idea is right for our column, it certainly never hurts to ask, so please get in touch with us: objectoftheweek@gmail.com

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Luisa Coscarelli –

Luisa did her BA in History of Art and German Literature at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Although completing it with a focus on contemporary art, she has now joined the Renaissance strand and is now interested in the relationship between smell and design. For her dissertation, Luisa is asking questions about ‘smelly objects’, and how olfactory environments were designed in the Renaissance period.

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© Luisa Coscarelli 2014. All Rights Reserved.

 

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