Shoes, Laws, & Ladies

Costume History, Fashion History

It’s January. It’s cold. It’s wet. It’s a long time til summer. What’s a girl to do? Distract herself with SHOES, of course!

More specifically, distract herself with the social, moral, and sexual implications of the Renaissance mother-of-all-shoes, the pianelle. BEHOLD:


Early 17th century, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. [image source]

This is all from a paper I wrote in college, which may explain the odd shifts in tone from academic to flippant. In any case, I think these shoes (and all the things they can tell us about Italian Renaissance society) are fascinating and worth sharing in between sewing projects. So without any further ado…!

What started out as a practical bit of kit to keep the mud and dust off your hose soon became a sumptuous and sometimes ridiculous accessory. Seriously, check out these Venetian chopines (a particularly tall variety of pianelle):


20 inch chopines, circa 1600, Museo Correr dei Veneziani.
[image source]

Though “adored by women of every rank in the latter part of the Middle Ages” [i], they got a lot of flack from legislators who “accused the pianelle of being the source of personal endangerment and a waste of costly fabrics used to produce very long skirts” [ii].

I can’t say I blame them:


Venetian courtesan, engraving by Pietro Bertelli, 1589 [image source]

As such, legislation took the fun out of pianelle – if you were allowed them at all. Silk, for example, was only legal in a few cities of the sixteenth century including Assisi and Perugia, and even then was only permitted for use in trimmings and decoration of pianelle and other shoes.

Just a few laws regarding pianelle:

  1. Bologna, 1401: no painted, carved, or embroidered pianelle; no pianelle made of leather aside from black or white, and no pianelle with toes longer than 3/4 inch. Violators (“both the wearer and the producer of such unlawful footwear” [iii]) must pay a five-lira fine.
  2. Forli, 1559: women allowed TWO pairs of SILK pianelle in WHATEVER color (!!!), but with no gold or silver adornment and of a value less than twenty soldi. Leather pianelle with no ornamentation of any type were also allowed.
  3. Spoleto, 16th century: women allowed pianelle in velvet or any other textile (!!), though any type of gold, silver, or stone decoration was prohibited resulting in the widespread use of embroidered decoration.

This is all assuming you’re classy (read: wealthy) enough to wear pianelle in the first place. If you’re a peasant or live out in the sticks, forget it. Pianelle were expensive and prevented women from participating in practical or manual activity, thus assigning them predominantly to the upper, non-working classes as they were confining and greatly hindered mobility.

This hindrance of movement and non-functionality is precisely what made pianelle so sexy – but we’ll pick that up tomorrow, with part two!

Early 17th century, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Early 17th century, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. [image source]

Sources and stuff

[i] Maria Guiseppina Muzzarelli, “Sumptuous Shoes,” in Shoes, a History from Sneakers to Sandals, eds. Giorgio Riello and Peter McNeil (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2006), 58.

[ii] Muzzarelli, 67

[iii] Muzzarelli, 58

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