Espadrilles have made their way in the fashion world as the go-to sandal for the summer season. They’re versatile enough – they go with everything from summer dresses to denim, and major brands have gotten in on the action. Depending on what you’re looking for, espadrilles can cost anywhere from $30 to around $500. But despite the fashion norms, the general public remains uninformed on this indeniably fashionable product.
What are espadrilles? At their most basic, they’re a form of shoe, typically a sandal. However, a major part of their appeal is their versatility, which unfortunately makes them hard to define. They normally have flat soles, but are occasionally high-heeled. In modern-day casual fashion, the tops of the shoes are made of canvas, and the soles are traditionally made of esparto rope. What is esparto? The answer to that lies in the very history of the shoes themselves.
Shoemaking itself is a generally poorly-documented section of history. The practice began in the Ancient Middle East, with the sandal. These typically consisted of a sole made of tightly-woven palm fronds held to the foot with leather straps or cords. As shoemaking moved West, the techniques and materials that shoemakers used varied on the geography of the area. However, one thing was constant: shoemaking (as well as many other professions before the Industrial Revolution) remained a localized business by families who passed the tradition to their children, and so on.
What we know as espadrilles were first documented in Western Europe in 1322, specifically in southern France and northern Spain. This region, also known in cultural and linguistic circles as Occitania, encompasses not only the Basque area of southwestern France but also the Catalonia region of northeastern Spain. Despite a turbulent history pockmarked with invasions and territorial disputes, the area’s paradox of isolation and diversity has made for a unique culture; a mix of Mediterranean, Muslim, and Western European styles permeate the visual style of the area.
Espadrilles are a product of this. The Occitania region is known just as well for its dramatic geographical diversity as for its culture, and the plains of Catalonia are ideal for the growth of a kind of grass called esparto. Esparto is a strong, wiry tallgrass that has been used in Northern Africa and Southern Europe for millennia. The earliest known use of esparto by humans was discovered in a cave in southern Spain, and is estimated to be from the Neolithic period of history -- roughly 7,000 years old.
Other traces of esparto have been found in the area in the form of ropes and other household items. When the Greeks, Phoenicians, and Romans invaded the Iberian Peninsula in the 6th century BC, they found that the natives used esparto to make rugs. They soon realized the value of its durability, and used it to make ropes for their ships. An economy centered around esparto soon formed around the Mediterranean region, and until the Industrial Revolution, when other materials could more cheaply and easily be manufactured, esparto was a major source of export in Spain.
Given the importance of esparto in Occitanian culture, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine its use in shoemaking. Tightly-woven esparto grass took the place of palm fronds as the material that made up the sole of the shoe, and it was also wrapped into thin cords to make the straps attaching it to the foot.
The first recorded use of espadrilles in 1322 used the term espardenyas, the Catalan word for the shoe. We know it was not well-recorded due to its popularity among the lower classes and soldiers (the upper classes used leather and silk for footwear) because it was cheaper to make.
In the 19th century, the concept of nation-states exploded on the world stage, particularly in Europe, and espadrilles became politicized as well. As countries were formed into more or less what we know today (geographically and politically), independence parties in both the Catalan and Basque regions (in Spain and France, respectively) spoke up in favor of an anti-monarchial, nationalistic government.
These movements were started by the working class, and their footwear – espadrilles – reflected this. A famous photo shows Basque nationalism founder Sabino Arana in prison in 1902, sporting a pair of embroidered espadrilles. The Spanish Civil War in the 1930s saw Catalan soldiers marching in espadrilles – they were cheaper than army boots. Actions like this established espadrilles as more than a stylish type of footwear – they became an icon.
As the 20th century progressed, espadrilles gained traction in the Western world. Artists such as Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso, actress Lauren Bacall, and even a young JFK could be seen in espadrilles. This opened the shoes up to a new audience in the fashion world when in the 1970s, French designer Yves Saint Laurent teamed up with Spanish espadrille manufacturer Castañer to create a wedge espadrille. When the wedge espadrilles hit the runway, they became an instant sensation, and their influence still carries on in the fashion world today.
Since espadrilles’ spike in popularity in the 1980s, they have been manufactured almost exclusively in Bangladesh – an area where esparto does not grow. Because of this (and due in no small part to cheaper materials) most espadrilles today are made of jute: a cheap, durable vegetable fiber common to Bangladesh.
There are two parts to the current process of manufacturing espadrilles: the creation of the sole, and the creation of the “uppers” – the rest of the shoe. As almost all espadrille soles are made of jute, Bangladesh creates 90% of the world’s jute soles. There are companies in South America and southern Europe that make complete espadrilles as well, but they import jute soles from Bangladesh.
These jute soles are by far the most important part of the shoe, and although technological advances have crept into the creating process, the steps have remained more or less consistent over almost 700 years.
The jute is first braided by a machine, a quicker, more cost-effective manner than an artisan’s hands. The product of this -- a strong, thick braid -- is looped tightly around two pegs by hand to make the shape of the sole, before being heat-pressed to pack the jute tightly together and form the final shape of the heel.
A layer of vertical stitching is added around the edges, and the soles are then vulcanized – infused with sulfur to improve their strength and lifespan – before heels are glued and wrapped with more jute braids. This last step is completed by individual brands, who fit them to their own specifications.
Espadrilles are many things. At an outside glance, they’re simply an especially practical, accessible sandal that goes with almost any type of summer wear. However, their history is one of war, uprising, and the plight of the working class itself. Since their first recorded instance, they’ve transformed from a simple practical shoe to battle armor to a political statement, to one of the most versatile shoes available. Even the materials used to make espadrilles have a rich history spanning thousands of years and across entire continents, not only as a testament to the durability of furniture, but as one of Europe’s first major exports.
The shoes’ reputation speaks for itself at this point; buy a pair for yourself, and you’ll see why.