Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society  |  August 31, 2020

The History of the Espadrille

by Marella Alves dos Reis

Today, when we think of espadrilles, we think of them as a simple piece of footwear, worn primarily in the summer months. However, their history uncovers a more diverse shoe, traditionally worn by both men and women. Their origins are found in Spain, specifically Catalonia and the Basque region, and the historical Occitania region of France [1]. Moreover, there is archaeological evidence that espadrilles have been worn in Spain for around 4,000 years; a pair of espadrilles housed in the Archaeological Museum of Granada have been dated to around 2000 BCE [2].

The term espadrille comes from the Catalan word ‘espardenya’, which alludes to esparto grass, an indigenous southern European plant used in the making of espadrilles. The esparto plant is traditionally used in the making of ropes and baskets [3], as well as providing the material for the iconic sole of the espadrille. It is a coarse and wiry plant, and therefore well suited as the sole of a light and practical shoe.

Traditionally, as well as the esparto plant sole, espadrilles were made using canvas to form the upper part of the shoe. This was done with two pieces of canvas, with the toe and heel sewn separately to the sole at the sides [4]. It is also common to find laces on traditional espadrilles, which tie around the ankle and help to keep the shoe in place. However, today there are distinct differences between traditional espadrilles and modern ones; not only with the style of the shoe, but also with the materials used.

The sole is now crafted from a variety of different types of natural fiber, and not exclusively the esparto plant. Jute is the most common material used for the modern shoe, as well as hemp. Moreover, although Spain is still a big producer of espadrilles, today many are made in Bangladesh, due to it being one of the world’s biggest jute producers. The modern version of the shoe also tends to have a rubber outer sole beneath the jute sole, to strengthen it and make it more durable. This differs to the traditional way of strengthening the sole, which was done with a coat of tar [5].

The espadrille initially began as a piece of peasant footwear, worn by both men and women in farming communities in the Pyrenees mountains [6]. However, they have also traditionally been worn by priests, miners and infantry [7]. They were created as a simple and functional shoe[8], being cheap to make and easy to wear. Nevertheless, the method of making them required skill, and different people to create the different parts of the shoe.

The two most important jobs were the making of the sole and the canvas upper. For the sole, the esparto plant was spun into a type of rope and then coiled. Then it would be placed in a mold in order to be shaped, and finally sewn to keep its shape. For the canvas upper, the two pieces would be cut and sewn to a separate piece of spun esparto, which would then be attached to the sole [9]. Finally, the sole would be strengthened. Although espadrilles were initially a peasant shoe, they came to be associated with the Catalan national dance Sardana, where dancers wore espadrilles - or ‘espardenya’, as they were known in Catalonia - with ribbons tied around the ankles [10].

By the 19th century, the popularity of espadrilles had grown. They started to be sold in vast quantities in the French city of Mauléon, and it was from there that their popularity began to grow in the rest of Europe. Towards the end of the 19th century they began to be exported to South America, where they became popular in the warm climate [11]. Moreover, they were frequently worn by Salvador Dalí, who was often photographed in a pair of traditional black espadrilles with ankle laces.

However, it was not until the 1940’s that espadrilles really became popular. This is due to the leading ladies of the silver screen, who frequently wore espadrilles on camera. Most famously, Rita Hayworth wore a white pair in the 1947 film ‘The Lady From Shanghai’, whilst Lauren Bacall donned a pair in the 1948 film ‘Key Largo’ [12]. Once people had seen them worn on screen, everyone wanted a pair for themselves.

Despite this, it was not until the 1970’s that the wedged espadrille gained iconic status. Created by Yves Saint Laurent, who visited a trade show in Paris and met Spanish manufacturer Castañer, he commissioned Castañer to create an espadrille with a wedged heel, which were a huge success. They fitted in well with other 1970’s fashion, due to their durable heel and bohemian look [13].

Today, the wedged espadrille is still a popular summer shoe, and now they can be adorned and styled in a multiple of different ways. Nevertheless, the original flat canvas espadrille has stood the test of time; it still remains a popular and practical shoe to this day, with little having changed from the original ‘espardenya’ of Catalonia and Occitania.

 

References
[1] ‘A History of the Espadrille’, Jigsaw, 2015 https://www.jigsaw-online.com/blog/uncategorized/espadrilles.html [accessed 10 June 2020]

[2] Margo DeMello, Feet and Footwear: A Cultural Encyclopedia, (Greenwood Press, 2009) 108.
https://books.google.es/books?id=LKTACQAAQBAJ&pg=PA108&dq=espadrilles+Spain+bangladesh&hl=es&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi9_JjVqsLpAhVODOwKHceWA38Q6AEIRzAC#v=onepage&q=espadrilles%20Spain%20bangladesh&f=false [accessed 9 June 2020]

[3] ‘What are Espadrilles?’, wiseGEEK, 2020 https://www.wisegeek.com/what-are-espadrilles.htm [accessed 11 June 2020]

[4] Margo DeMello, Feet and Footwear: A Cultural Encyclopedia, (Greenwood Press, 2009) 108.
https://books.google.es/books?id=LKTACQAAQBAJ&pg=PA108&dq=espadrilles+Spain+bangladesh&hl=es&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi9_JjVqsLpAhVODOwKHceWA38Q6AEIRzAC#v=onepage&q=espadrilles%20Spain%20bangladesh&f=false [accessed 9 June 2020]

[5] Margo DeMello, Feet and Footwear: A Cultural Encyclopedia, (Greenwood Press, 2009) 108.
https://books.google.es/books?id=LKTACQAAQBAJ&pg=PA108&dq=espadrilles+Spain+bangladesh&hl=es&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi9_JjVqsLpAhVODOwKHceWA38Q6AEIRzAC#v=onepage&q=espadrilles%20Spain%20bangladesh&f=false [accessed 9 June 2020]

[6] Margo DeMello, Feet and Footwear: A Cultural Encyclopedia, (Greenwood Press, 2009) 108.
https://books.google.es/books?id=LKTACQAAQBAJ&pg=PA108&dq=espadrilles+Spain+bangladesh&hl=es&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi9_JjVqsLpAhVODOwKHceWA38Q6AEIRzAC#v=onepage&q=espadrilles%20Spain%20bangladesh&f=false [accessed 9 June 2020]

[7] ‘A History of the Espadrille’, Jigsaw, 2015 https://www.jigsaw-online.com/blog/uncategorized/espadrilles.html [accessed 10 June 2020]

[8] ‘Fashion Archives: A look at the History of Espadrilles’, Startup Fashion, 2017 https://startupfashion.com/fashion-archives-a-look-at-the-history-of-espadrilles/ [accessed 9 June 2020]

[9] Margo DeMello, Feet and Footwear: A Cultural Encyclopedia, (Greenwood Press, 2009) 108.
https://books.google.es/books?id=LKTACQAAQBAJ&pg=PA108&dq=espadrilles+Spain+bangladesh&hl=es&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi9_JjVqsLpAhVODOwKHceWA38Q6AEIRzAC#v=onepage&q=espadrilles%20Spain%20bangladesh&f=false [accessed 9 June 2020]

[10] ‘Fashion Archives: A look at the History of Espadrilles’, Startup Fashion, 2017 https://startupfashion.com/fashion-archives-a-look-at-the-history-of-espadrilles/ [accessed 9 June 2020]

[11] ‘A Brief History of Espadrilles’, Toast Magazine, 2018 https://www.toa.st/magazine/a-brief-history-of-espadrilles.htm [accessed 11 June 2020]

[12] ‘A History of the Espadrille’, Jigsaw, 2015 https://www.jigsaw-online.com/blog/uncategorized/espadrilles.html [accessed 10 June 2020]

[13] ‘Fashion Archives: A look at the History of Espadrilles’, Startup Fashion, 2017 https://startupfashion.com/fashion-archives-a-look-at-the-history-of-espadrilles/ [accessed 9 June 2020]

  • Traditional white espadrilles with the ankle lacing © Jigsaw
  • Rita Hayworth wearing a pair of classic white espadrilles © Castañer
  • An espadrille sewn together by hand © Castañer
  • A modern wedged espadrille © Castañer