The history of the slipper

Fashion, customs, social science and industry – once you step inside the history of the slipper there’s much to sink into. But don’t get too comfortable, it’s not all about toasty toes 

What is a slipper? Until the late 19th century, the term could be used to describe any indoor shoe that slipped on to the foot, including ballroom slippers (think Cinderella’s glassy numbers), bathroom slippers, bedroom slippers and afternoon tea slippers. Nowadays, we use the word to mean footwear that is only to be worn in the home. Whatever the definition, its history is an absorbing proposition.

Slippers were worn in Chinese courts as early as 4700 BC. They would be made out of cotton or woven rush, had leather linings, and were adorned with symbols of power, such as dragons. Native American moccasins were also highly decorative. Hand painted to depict scenes from nature and embellished with beadwork and fringing, their soft sure-footedness made them suitable for indoors appropriation.

Inuit and Aleut people would make shoes from smoked hare hide to protect their feet against the frozen ground inside their homes. Conversely, the discerning Victorian gentleman was in need of a pair of ‘house shoes’ in order to keep the dust and gravel outside – much better than ruining his expensive rug and beautifully polished floor.

Embroidered slippers presented Victorian ladies (on both sides of the Atlantic) with an opportunity to show off their needlepoint skills. Magazines such as Godey’s Lady’s Book and Peterson’s Magazine contained patterns so that the latest fashions could be recreated in the home; a perfect gift for a loved one, and an ideal way to entice a man with an eye for embroidery.

The emergence of a slipper industry grew from the warehouse floor of the felt industry in northeast England. Workers would make themselves footwear from the scraps that were left over, and from this seed grew the businesses of John William Rothwell, Samuel McLerie and other commercial retailers in the late 1800s. Though the advent of heating and descent into everyday casualness may have led slipper sales to decline since the 1950s it doesn’t make them any less interesting, or snug! Read on for tales of notable styles, from those worn by Kanye West to the Pope. 

The Prince Albert slipper

The discerning gentleman’s house shoe, which gained popularity in the 1840s, is said to have been designed by Prince Albert himself. The Albert slipper has an extended vamp (the upper part), quilted lining and leather sole. Initially designed for Victorian men hosting dinner parties, and to be teamed with a matching smoking jacket, this design staple was later synonymous with Hollywood greats, such as Clarke Gable. From Robert Kennedy to the purveyor of questionable style Kanye West, it has continued to be a signature of the debonair.

To liberate or repress

Slippers have been used as both a symbol of freedom and oppression. For Rita de Acosta Lydig, receiver of one of the largest divorce settlements of her day in 1900, her Pietro Yanturni slippers, made of gold brocade and silver silk tissue (stored on shoe trees made from antique violins), were a sign of opulence. Slippers worn by members of a sultan’s harem represented something entirely different. Their frail nature made it impossible to escape over any rough terrain, but made them ideal footwear for the luxurious carpets of their masters.

Papal submission

The slippers historically worn by the Pope were an elaborate affair. Bright red, to represent the blood of martyrs and Christ’s own bloodied feet in his final moments, they were handmade from silk or satin and decorated with gold thread. A gold cross garnished with rubies completed the ornate spectacle. The Pope wore these slippers inside his residences, rather than the red leather shoes he would wear outside, and it was custom that any pilgrim having an audience with the Pope had to kneel and kiss one of his slippers. 

Words: Duncan Haskell, Illustrations: Jade They

This originally featured in issue six of Ernest Journal, on sale now.

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