Footwear August 10th, 2020

Why Are We Wearing Shoes In The First Place?

Throughout human history, we’ve improved, embellished and refined footwear.

We’ve created shoes that impress and inspire, and shoes that protect and enhance performance. We obsess, we collect and we keep changing it up.

Shoes have served as status symbols in the courts of Europe and on the streets of New York. They’ve defined fashion and fitness movements, made statements on film and TV, and provided a functional form of self-expression for cultures across the globe.

At Zappos, we’re crazy about shoes — it’s in our DNA. We started our journey selling footwear and have spent the past 20 years refining the process. From the wide selection of sizes, colors and styles that made us famous, to the WOW customer service that keeps our community happy and coming back for more, we know shoes.


A quick history of footwear

At their simplest, shoes are designed to protect our feet from adverse weather and puncture wounds. The earliest forms of footwear were probably the result of some ancient R&D beside the campfire, made from whatever materials were available.

Indigenous peoples in the Amazon basin protected their feet from moisture, sharp objects, and insect bites with slippers made with natural latex from the rubber tree. And societies throughout history have shod themselves using animal hides left over from dinner.

In 1938, archeologists working in Oregon’s high desert discovered sandals fashioned from strands of sagebrush bark. Dating back around 10,000 years these surprisingly refined shoes were certainly not the first attempt by humans to cover and protect their feet, but are some of the oldest specimens to survive.


At 5,000 years old, Areni-1 is believed to be the world's oldest leather shoe. Photo source: Glamiva

After moccasins and sandals, shoe fashions evolved through a series of boots and dress shoes, and in the 20th century, rubber-soled athletic shoes became the norm. Sears, Roebuck and Company first sold tennis shoes in 1897 for sixty cents a pair. By 1917, Keds and Converse were offering affordable canvas sneakers that eventually fueled most children’s adventures.

Tennis shoes were casual, inexpensive, and better for kids on the move than their stiff leather counterparts. Bolstered by Chuck Taylor, who played semi-pro basketball in 1919, and later by film stars like Steve McQueen and James Dean, sneakers were well on their way to becoming a lifestyle staple by the mid-1920s.

Early fashion footwear

While sneaker brands were busy developing shoes with comfort and performance in mind, the story arc of fashion footwear has been a little less pragmatic.

Long before Lady Gaga was stepping out in vertigo-inducing stilettos, the courts of Europe were indulging in their own form of skyscraping self-expression.


Velvet-covered chopines, believed to be worn in the 16th century. Photo source: Collector's Weekly

Perhaps one of the best examples of street fashion trickling up into the mainstream was when Renaissance ladies wore an early version of the platform called a chopine. Towering up to 18 inches tall, they were appropriated from the courtesans and nightlife characters of Venice, and worked their way into the wardrobes of aristocrats — despite warnings from the church against the so-called “immoral” shoes.

Another fun and highly impractical footwear trend was a daring men’s style called the pike, or poulaine. The flat leather shoe seems simple enough, but with an exaggerated point of the toe, it crossed over into pure fashion. The medieval working class was prohibited from wearing a pike over two inches long. Instead, the elfish shoes were reserved for leisurely gentlemen who could afford to get tripped up by the awkwardly long points.

The cultural impact of heels and sneakers

Boot and shoe styles continued to evolve into the modern era, and factors like hem length and availability of materials played a role in the preferences of each generation. It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that we saw fashion for fashion’s sake reemerge in footwear design as fully as it had with the pike and chopine.

“I don’t know who invented the high heel. But all women owe him a lot,” Marilyn Monroe famously said.

It’s true; for many ladies, the shift in posture and persona associated with wearing heels imparts instant sex appeal. They add a boost of height, elongate the leg, and create an immediate power shift. From Cinderella’s distinctive lost slipper to Carrie Bradshaw’s confident stiletto-clad stride, heels have captured our imaginations and become part of our identities.


The adidas Superstar, made famous by Run-DMC and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Photo source:

Thanks to sports and pop culture, sneakers have also shaped the cultural landscape. In the 1980s, athletic wear morphed into an everyday staple with the advent of an Adidas-clad RUN-DMC, Nike’s game-changing Air Jordans, and an aerobics-fueled fitness craze that put Reebok on the cover of beauty magazines. These designs satisfied our beliefs that we could run faster, jump higher, and perform better than ever before.

Every generation seems to have their own take on footwear trends, calling up retro designs from previous generations, and remixing new styles to make them their own. Whether you’re a fanatic of high-fashion or a sneakerhead, there’s nobody quite like you.

Zappos’ shoe-loving service

Back in the Wild West of the late ’90s, if you had a specific shoe in mind, you had to drive around town from store to store in search of it. If you were lucky, someone would have it in the size and color you wanted, but it was a time-consuming gamble at best. For people with hard-to-find sizes or those who weren’t content to simply browse, shoe shopping was slow and frustrating.

It was one such experience (in search of the Airwalk Desert Chukka) that led Zappos founder Nick Swinmurn to rethink everything. He was living in San Francisco and decided to open an online shoe store.

At the time, online shopping was relatively new. eBay had been founded only a few years earlier, and Amazon was mainly a source for books. Buying shoes online might have seemed pretty adventurous for some, but with the convenience of free, at-home delivery and a 365-day return policy, many busy shoppers were ready to try it out.

It turned out online shopping became a thing, and the rest is history.

Twenty years in, we’re proud of our legacy of customer service. And though we’ve expanded our product line to include clothing, apparel, jewelry and accessories, we’re as passionate about shoes as ever.

Zappos was built on the idea that finding shoes you love in sizes that fit shouldn’t be a chore. With tens of thousands of styles and always-free shipping, we’re dedicated to giving you the seamless, stress-free shopping experience you deserve.

We’re here to make finding that must-have pair of shoes simple, so you can continue to dress it up, dress it down, and do you.


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