These espadrilles were made for walkin’
Mar 31, 2021 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
As the temperatures start to climb ever-higher, it’s time to search for the ideal Summer shoe. For me, that search starts and ends in one place. I adore a beautiful sandal. Ever since I saw Audrey Hepburn sitting atop the Spanish Steps in Roman Holiday, I gravitate toward a graceful sandal. But there’s an equally compelling Summer shoe that might be more at home on the Spanish Steps: the espadrille. Nancy Sinatra had her signature ballad about boots, but let’s find out why espadrilles were made for walkin’.
Travel with me to the early 1300s. We are venturing to Northern Spain (specifically to the areas of Catalonia & the Basque country). If you grew up in this part of the world the espadrille was your go-to. While the use of canvas as a material for shoes wasn’t necessarily new, the espadrille, with its braided rope sole, was uniquely-suited to the local terrain. By using these simple materials, the espadrille was also easy to make and cheap to purchase. But being inexpensive wasn’t the espadrille’s only appeal. Since canvas is a forgiving textile, people could personalize their shoes with embroidery or ribbons. These looks are most wonderfully displayed during a performance of the Sardana. Given this history, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say the espadrille was fundamental to the area’s culture. (Similar to how Havaianas became part of Brazil’s identity.) And like the Brazilian flip-flop, espadrilles would go on to become fashion heavyweights (but I’m getting ahead of myself).
For nearly 500 years espadrilles were part of regional lore and everyday life. But in the 1800s this simple shoe showed off its militant side. To explain how this “every man” shoe stepped into the spotlight, it helps to understand what was happening at this time. During the 19th century Europe was experiencing all sorts of unrest. The two bookends to this tumultuous time period are the French Revolution in 1789 and the onset of WWI in 1914. The in-between years were defined by bouts of nationalism and regionalism as boundaries were drawn and redrawn (often in blood). Compounding this political unrest was the seismic economic impact of the Industrial Revolution. Cities were springing up and the idea of working in a factory, rather than a field, was taking hold. Everything was changing and changing quickly. Spain was not immune from these challenges.
Northern Spain mobilized, by region, to fight for opposing ideals. For Catalonia that meant supporting independence. The Basque country, in contrast, was more conservative and wanted to unite at a national level. The Spaniards-turned-soldiers may have disagreed over politics, but they never argued over the espadrille. Soldiers marched to the battlefield in espadrilles, literally walking in the footsteps of 500+ years of history. When this civil war ended, a period of oppression began as General Francisco Franco sought to destroy all uniqueness. For Northern Spain that meant the beloved espadrille was at risk. Yet as more people fled from Franco, it meant the world was introduced to this special footwear.
When the espadrille expanded beyond the borders of Spain it shed the battlefield and embraced a lighter side. Suddenly this commonplace shoe became a symbol of a fun-loving person. Espadrilles were already being exported to South America and soon they travelled North. Well-known figures like JFK catapulted the shoe from its humble beginnings. Before long Hollywood came calling as Rita Hayworth and Lauren Bacall each donned espadrilles for their post-WWII films, The Lady from Shanghai and Key Largo. The espadrille was becoming a closet staple around the world. But in the 1970s this simple shoe transformed once more. The designer Yves Saint Laurent added a wedge, putting the espadrille on the haute couture radar. From that moment the wedged espadrille strode down the runway and into many a fashion lover’s heart. All this talk of the espadrille is giving my sandals a run for their money! Tell me, dear reader, what shoe design are you most excited to slip into come Summertime?