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Fashion Archives: A Look at the History of Espadrilles

Espadrilles are the quintessential summer shoe- now more than ever. This season, so many designers have created their own takes on this classic. The simple espadrille has gotten a variety of unlikely updates, such as Miu Miu’s glittery slides that scream both “disco” and “beach party.” Espadrilles are easy, yet can be dressed up or down- it’s no wonder they’ve had a renaissance this season.

The Original Espadrille

Despite the modern and trendy appearance of espadrilles, this shoe style has been around since the 13th century. Its origins can be traced to the Occitania and Catalonia areas of the Pyrenees on the Spanish and French border. The name is derived from the word esparto; “espadrille” is a reference to the plant that makes up the iconic sole of the shoe. This particular style of footwear was created to be simple and functional.

The original 13th-century production process was highly complex, requiring many craftsmen to create the treads, another artisan known as an alpargatero to create the rope soles, and finally a seamstress to sew the fabric upper and band. The hard work paid off, the resulting shoe was lightweight and flexible- perfect for the warm climate of the Pyrenees and active lifestyles of its people.

Basque Roots

Espadrilles have strong roots in Basque culture. They were worn by everyone, from the King of Aragon’s infantry, to mine workers and priests. In addition to being worn by soldiers and laborers, espadrilles were also the go-to shoes for the Catalan national dance, Sardana. Dancers wore a specific type of espadrilles called “Espardenya,” that featured ribbons that tied around the ankles.

For the first few centuries of their existence, espadrilles did not stray far from their place of origin. However, by the 19th century, that slowly but steadily began to change. They started to be sold in much larger quantities in the French city of Mauléon. In fact, the demand was so high that women from the nearby Aragonese valleys came to work in the factories that manufactured espadrilles.

It was there in Mauléon where the shoes began to catch on with the rest of Europe, and subsequently, with the rest of the world. Many Europeans recognized the benefits of a sturdy and functional, yet lightweight summer shoe, and it quickly spread across the continent. By the 1880’s, manufacturers began exporting them to the warm climates of South America as well.