The snail and the pointed shoe
Exploring one of the strangest footwear designs in human history, and noting how its principles were resurrected in the 1950s.
Image © Northamptonshire Museum & Art Gallery
Youths in the 1950s wanted to throw off the austerity of wartime life and wear fresh and dynamic styles – and shoemakers of the day were only too willing to help. However, not everything in that decade was novel. In fact, the fifties saw the revival of an extravagance in footwear styling which originated some 800 years earlier, but had been out of fashion since the 1460s. ‘Winklepickers’ with very long and pointed toes reminiscent of mediaeval footwear, burst back onto the scene and which, along with the alternative ‘brothel creepers’, were especially popular with followers of British rock and roll music, such as the ‘teddy boys’.
Why did this shoe gain such an unusual name? Because in England, periwinkle snails (often just called ‘winkles’) were a popular seaside snack eaten using a pin or some other pointed object to extract the soft parts out of the coiled shell. Hence, someone decided to describe the new shoe sensations in a similar way, and the name stuck.
A long time ago…
Shoes with very long toes were an unusual European creation which are first recorded in the 12th century and that regularly fell in and out of fashion from that time onwards. A chronicle called Eulogium Historiarum describes men in 1366 as wearing ‘points on their shoes as long as your finger that are called ‘crakowes’; more suitable as claws. for demons than as ornaments for men’.
These ‘crakows’ or ‘crackowes’ were so named because the style was believed to have first originated in Kraków, which at the time was the capital city of Poland. They were also known as ‘poulaines’ or ‘pikes’. The fashion was said to have arrived in England with the marriage of King Richard II and Anne of Bohemia in 1382. As in our day, what Royalty wears often sells well.
Nevertheless, shoes with extra-long tips were generally worn by the wealthiest portion of society, who could afford to walk around in such impractical footwear, rather than the average man in the street (or field). Essentially, the shoes were a status symbol for the rich. Footwear with ridiculously long toes were exorbitantly priced and would prevent the wearer from doing any type of manual labour. The poulaine The poulaine suggested that the wearer was living a life of leisure.
The long poulaine toes were packed with stuffing to help them keep their shape. Surviving examples from mediaeval London are filled with moss, and an Italian chronicler noted that they were occasionally stuffed with horsehair. While still ridiculously long by modern standards, poulaine shoe soles held in museums indicate that the length of the point beyond the toes of the foot was rarely more than 50 per cent of the length of the wearer’s foot, even when at the height of their popularity.
Trouble at the top
By the late 14th century, however, authorities in some parts of continental Europe had already started to react negatively to the shoe’s popularity. For instance, King Charles V of France issued an edict in 1368 banning the manufacture and wearing of poulaines in Paris.
The style’s controversy even reached levels of national security. Some knights are said to have worn shoes with toes so long that these interfered with the men’s ability to run. In one battle, the noblemen fighting for Duke Leopold III of Austria (1351 to 1386) are reported, unsurprisingly, to have been wearing some very fashionable poulaines while in the saddle – and were probably proud of how they looked. However, it suddenly became necessary for them to dismount and fight on foot and, because they had not prepared for this possibility by wearing less eye-catching footwear, they were forced to cut off the tips of their poulaines to avoid putting themselves in increased danger.
The fashion even affected religion. In 1388, an English poem complained that men were unable to kneel in prayer because the toes of their shoes were too long. Fifteenth-century art shows poulaine-toed shoes being worn by both sexes. Perhaps with complaints from generals and bishops ringing in his ears, English King Edward IV passed a sumptuary law (one designed to restrain luxury or extravagance) in 1463, restricting anyone ‘under the state of a Lord, Esquire, [or] Gentleman’ from wearing poulaines over the length of two inches. Just two years later, the shoes were banned in England altogether.
Enter the winklepickers
Back to the 1950s. After a considerable hiatus, long-toed footwear – although thankfully nowhere near as outlandish as its predecessors – burst back onto the scene in the mid-20th century. As previously mentioned, winklepickers were popular with ‘teddy boys’, and in the late fifties, women’s winklepickers with stiletto heels swept the UK. The 1960s saw with another British subculture, the sharp-suited, scooter-riding ‘mods’, adopting the style.
Northamptonshire Museum & Art Gallery
Later during the decade, the point was effectively chopped off, which gave rise to the ‘chisel toe’ footwear style. However, winklepickers were not to be defeated, and sharp-point shoes made a comeback of sorts in the late 1970s and the early eighties, when they were worn by several subculture groups, including revivalist mods, rockers, teddy boys, rockabillies and rock’n’rollers, as well as goths.
The modern day
By the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, winklepickers were being worn by another generation of fashion-conscious revivalists to complement 1960s mod blazers, skinny jeans, vintage T-shirts and Western shirts, and could be seen on stage adorning by musicians and indie bands such as the Kaiser Chiefs. Although these later versions often featured a slightly less pointed toe than before, it was still much longer than found on traditional shoes.
Today, a Google search of ‘winklepickers for sale’ brings up a selection of manufacturers – mainly located in the UK – offering what appear to be collections of high-quality men’s and women’s sharp-toed shoes. While this is obviously a niche market aimed at a small percentage of footwear consumers, the very fact that it is still in existence clearly shows that customers are out there – and buying these shoes on a regular basis.
The photograph at the top of this article shows a pair of brown leather reproduction mediaeval poulaines.
This article was originally published on page 28 of the February 2023 issue of SATRA Bulletin.