Espadrilles: Fashionable Throughout History

Date Posted: 28 December 2017 

Espadrilles are known in the fashion world as the go-to sandal for summer. They’re known for their versatility, both in practicality and style. Most major shoe brands – ranging anywhere from Gucci to TOMS – has gotten in on the action, and as a result, their price range is all over the place as well, depending on what you’re looking for. But let’s bypass all this. How much do you really know about these sandals? As with everything else, there’s much more to it than meets the eye.

First off, espadrilles are, as I mentioned above, a type of sandal. However, this is about all we can say for sure: the downfall of their versatility makes them hard to categorize. They can be flat-soled or high-heeled, open-toed or close-toed, but one thing remains pretty consistent: the materials of the soles. They’re usually made from a type of rope called esparto, or something resembling it. But what is
esparto? The answer to that is as old as shoes themselves.

For many generations – even in the ancient world – shoemaking was a family trade, and therefore not well-documented. However, we can pretty easily gather they began with the sandal, in what is now the Middle East. Sandals back then were usually a sole made of palm fronds kept together with leather straps. As shoemaking moved West, different areas used different materials and techniques, for
different terrains and climates.

The first modern espadrille was first documented in 1322, in Occitania, which today includes southwestern France (Basque) and northeastern Spain (Catalonia). Despite its violent history, Occitania’s diversity has made it a unique cultural hub; its visual style is a blend of Mediterranean, European, and Middle Eastern.

These can be seen in the footwear of the area: espadrilles. The Occitania region produced a diverse landscape, from mountains to coast to plain, and the fields of Catalonia produce a tallgrass called – you guessed it -- esparto. Esparto is a tough, wiry tallgrass that has been used in Occitania and surrounding regions since ancient history. As best we can tell, the earliest documented use of esparto for anything was found in a cave, and it dates back to an astounding 7,000 BC.

Since then, esparto has also been discovered as a material for building materials, and decor. When the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans invaded the Spain-Portugal area in the 6th century BC, they soon realized how durable – and valuable – it was, and used it to make ropes for their ships. Esparto soon spread around the Mediterranean area as a useful textile, and until the Industrial Revolution – when cheaper materials became the norm -- esparto was a major export of Spain.

Given how prominent esparto was in Occitania, it’s not hard to imagine its use in shoemaking. Esparto grass, tightly-woven together, replaced palm fronds as the shoe’s sole, and it was also wrapped into cords to make the foot straps.

When espadrilles were first documented in 1322, the term espardenyas -- the Catalan word for the shoe – was originally used. They were well-documented among the lower classes, as well as the infantries in the area -- the upper classes used leather and silk to make their shoes -- because it was readily available, and cheaper to make.

Although Spain emerged as a world power in 1492, and France (as we know it) followed in 1792, the rest of the world powers as we know them today took shape in the 18th and 19th centuries. As countries were formed into what they are today (geographically and politically), independence parties in Spain and France fought for governments that were less centered around monarchy...and more around the rights of the people.

Of course, these parties were founded by the lower classes, and their footwear – espadrilles – became known as one of their most prominent symbols. A famous photo shows one of these founders, Basque revolutionary Sabino Arana, in prison in 1902, wearing embroidered espadrilles. In the 1930s, Catalan soldiers in the Spanish Civil War wore espadrilles because they were cheaper than leather boots. Because of actions like these, espadrilles became politicized as a statement, instead of simply regional

However, the later half of the 1900s introduced the espadrille to the world stage. Famous figures from all walks of life, from Picasso to Lauren Bacall to even JFK were often seen wearing espadrilles. In the 1970s, French fashion trendsetter Yves Saint Laurent sought the help of Spanish shoemaking company Castañer to create a wedge espadrille for an upcoming show. When the fashion world got wind of the wedges, they couldn’t get enough, and this helped establish espadrilles as fashion icons that continue

However, the question of how to quickly and cheaply mass produce espadrilles became a problem. Since the 1980s, espadrilles have mainly been produced in Bangladesh, due to cheap costs. However, esparto doesn’t grow in Bangladesh, so manufacturers have had to improvise. The soles of most espadrilles today are made of jute: a cheap, tough fiber that’s commonly found in Bangladesh.

There are two parts to the espadrille – the sole, and the “uppers” – anything on the top of the shoe. So it stands to reason that the main process is in two parts: one part of the process for each part of the shoe.

The jute sole is certainly the most important part of the shoe, and though technology and different materials have slightly varied the process, the techniques used to make them have been fairly consistent since the pre-Industrial area. Because of this, many espadrille manufacturers outside Bangladesh still import jute soles from Bangladesh.

First, a machine with swirls and braids the jute rope around itself, making a thick braid that’s stronger than an artisan could make. The braid is then looped around two pegs to form the sole’s shape, and this is then heat-pressed to further strengthen and solidify the heel. The sides are coated in a layer of stitching for aesthetic purposes, and the soles are then infused with sulfur to improve durability before
the individual manufacturer adds rubber heels to the bottoms.

The evolution of the espadrille is nothing less than the evolution of human innovation itself. From hand-woven reeds strewn together to make a simple farmer’s sandal, the industry has exploded onto the world stage, known for its versatility, durability, and status of an “everyman’s shoe”. The espadrille also exemplifies what it means to be a symbol, as evidenced by its involvement in the Spanish Civil War and the like before its entry into the fashion world. Because of this, it’s not hard to see the appeal on a different level.

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