If nowadays the modern world has a wide variety of odd-looking footwear, the shoemakers of the past were producing any type of style and had no reason to envy what we have today. Amongst those productions it is necessary to remember the Chopine, feminine type of shoes very popular between the 15th, 16th and 17th century. Despite some of the “wedges” of certain chopine could remind of the ones coming from the 20th century, the ancient shoe had as a main purpose the functional one first and the aesthetic one later.
The goal of the women was in fact to not get their garments dirty with the mud in the city. The shoe became famous in the rich area of Venice, even though probably not originated in the city, and it furthermore became the symbol of the high rank of its wearer.
The higher the shoe the more important the dame was
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To regulate the height of people, “the Serenissima” (as in the Republic of Venice) enacted a law in 1430, which restricted the heels to a maximum of 8 cm (3.5 inch) but the norm was almost entirely ignored and they produced chopine all the way up to 50 cm (20 inch), many of which are kept in the Mocenigo Palace and the Correr Museum of Venice. The ones preserved there were made out of wood and cork while the Spanish productions were generally tied in metal.
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The wedge was covered in leather, brocade and velvet then the fabric of the chopine was usually matching the dress, even though it was not mandatory. Even though they were heavily decorated, hence index of a precious object to show off, the shoes were generally hidden underneath the skirt of the women, away from possible disapproving eyes.
The women walking with these shoes on had a rather unstable stride as if they were on top of stilts, and they were often accompanied by two servants, that were helping as support. Although some people struggled incredibly on those high shoes, others were able to make do with naturalness: the dance instructor Marco Fabrizio Caroso in his “Dames Nobility”from 1600, affirmed that women were supposed to dance with grace even when equipped with the uncomfy shoes.
A peculiar detail important to remind when talking about nobility, dames and chopines: they were used by the high rank women but they were also worn by common women and prostitutes.
If the trend was widely spread in the Venice area, it was instead the Spanish culture that had the chopine reaching the highest popularity. This specific type of footwear became so popular during the 1400 that most of the national production of cork was intended for the realisation of the wedges of the shoes.
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This circumstance has pushed the fashion historians to believe that the origin of this type of footwear had to be placed in Spain and not in Italy, even due to some Spanish recoveries dating back to the 14th century. The shoes spread from Spain and Italy to France and England for then arriving all the way to China as well.
Even though the word Chopine does not exist in Italy, the shoe assumed in that country the name “pianella”, which in modern Italian it means the exact opposite, i.e. a low shoe open on the ankle.
Below: red chopine with wedge represented in the painting “Two Venetian Ladies” by Vittore Carpaccio
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In Venice every dame had the Chopine, and the visitors of the time, often amused, would visit the lagoon even just to admire those “sculptures on a stand” which were moving around the city.
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The movements, especially when the shoes were very high, were limited and for this reason the men would foster their use. This way their women would have reduced their time outside home, limiting their chances of cheating, especially during the periods when the Venetian merchants were out of Venice for business.
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Even the clergy, known to be against extravagant trends, was this time favourable towards the diffusion of the chopine. They were limiting in great quantity the art of dancing, considered sinful by the religious men of the time.
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Today there are many historical replicas of these ancient shoes, but generally the chopin with a high sole is considered to be outdated in favour of heels and wedges.