Fashion is cyclical, I’m told, and my wardrobe, basically unchanged since the 1980s, bears testament to this. Occasionally, my tried and tested garments come back into fashion and I can preen myself that I’m on trend with little effort from myself.
One of the oddest fashions to my mind is the platform heel. It has a long legacy – there are statues of Aphrodite in elevated footwear and there is evidence that Roman women wore them, perhaps to lift their clothing from the mud and detritus in the streets. But perhaps the most extreme form of platform heel was the chopine, a popular fashion accessory in Spain and Italy, principally Venice, during the 15th to 17th centuries.
Seeing women tottering around on ludicrously high heels has always drawn scorn from unreconstructed males. William Shakespeare, no less, could not the opportunity pass, Hamlet noting in Act 2 Scene 2 “By y’r Lady, your ladyship is nearer to heaven than when I saw you last, by the altitude of a chopine.” English visitors to Venice scratched their heads and called these fashion victims “half wood, half woman.”
Spanish chopines, which seem to have been adapted from the Moorish footwear style, were made of cork with highly worked and embossed leather. As the Spanish women wore their skirts down to the top of the chopine, their intricate design was shown off to the full, contrasting with the sombre black of their outerwear. Some of them had diamonds and other gems sewn into them, hardly indicating that their sole purpose was to protect the wearer from the mud. Rather, perhaps, their purpose was to suggest that beneath the woman’s dour black mantle there was to be found splendid and colourful vestments. In other words, they were indicators of the wealth of the wearer. So popular were they in their day that the confessor to Queen Isabella noted “there’s not enough cork in all of Spain to meet the needs of women in regard to their chopines.”
Italian chopines, on the other foot, were made from wood and were known in the local lingo as zoccoli, from the Italian zocco meaning a stump or block of wood. They were worn in a different way from the Spanish style, being incredibly tall, some boasting heels of up to twenty inches, and were completely covered by the skirt. As much of Venitian economic power came from its control of the textile trade, it would seem that the primary motivation of elevating a woman was to boost the sale of fabrics and to demonstrate the fineness and luxuriance of the materials. Effectively, they were a form of undergarment.
It is also worth remembering that the lot of a Venetian noblewoman was not a happy one, being confined to barracks for most of the time and were only seen in public on ceremonial and state occasions, often atop a float bearing testament to the affluence of their family. Walking in the ludicrous chopines was a trial, certainly beyond the competence of an aspiring Naomi Campbell, and often the poor woman could only move around with the aid of a couple of servants to keep her steady. A considerable accomplishment would be to be able to walk unaided and perhaps even shake a leg during a mannered and stately dance.
Mercifully for all concerned, the chopine eventually fell out of fashion, reflective of the fall from influence of the Venetian empire. What replaced it was a new development in footwear fashion, the heel, which began to find favour in the French court via the Near East and was adopted by men.
Eventually women caught up!