A Ball of Wool

On my recent blog, The History of Postcards, published on 9th April 2021, I received a comment that said, “Hazel can make anything interesting, perhaps next week the history of a ball of wool!” Whilst this suggestion is undoubtedly a joke, it made me think. Is it possible to write an article about a ball of wool? Could it be an interesting topic to research? So after some thought and a few internet searches, my response to this comment is “Challenge Accepted!” 

From where does wool come? Most people will say sheep, which is true, but wool is also obtained from other animals, including goats, oxen, rabbits and camels. The history of wool begins around 6000 BC, where archaeological evidence in Iran suggests people kept sheep for their wool. Fragments of woollen garments dating to circa 3000 BC exist in the Middle East, but the animals arrived in Europe much later, where the oldest wool textile, found in a Danish bog, dates to c. 1500 BC.

To remove the woollen fleece from the sheep requires a pair of shears. These may resemble a large pair of scissors or, more recently, a power-driven toothed blade similar to human hair clippers. Yet, the first shears did not appear until the Iron Age (c. 1500-500 BC). Before then, people collected the wool by hand, either plucking it straight from the sheep or using sharp bronze combs.

Around the time of the Roman invasion in 55 BC, the British Isles had a thriving wool industry, which helped clothe the majority of people in the country. Soon, wool joined linen and leather as the most common clothing textiles in Europe. Other fabrics, such as cotton and silk, arrived later from India and China, and only the most wealthy could afford such luxuries.

By the 1st century AD, European people bred sheep specifically for wool production. As Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) explained in his encyclopedia Naturalis Historia (Natural History), some areas were already selectively breeding the animals to produce superior fleeces. Pliny claimed Apulian wool, collected from sheep in the heel of Italy, was the “most esteemed”, often used for making cloaks. He explained that although shearing sped up the wool collecting process, some countries still preferred to pluck it from the animal.

Pliny also described the various colours of wool found in different areas of the world. In Southern Italy, sheep tended to have white fleeces, but in the north, black sheep frequented the Alps, and Erythræan or red wool came from countries bordering the red sea. Wool gathered in Istria, a peninsula shared today by Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy, was not as suitable for making garments, whereas sheep in Egypt produced the best wool for embroidery. In Gaul, they used fleece to make carpets and felt. They also dyed the wool to create beautiful patterns, although black wool did not take any colour.

A fair in Champagne in the 13th century

With so many varieties of wool, the fabric soon became a tradeable commodity. In the 12th century, traders flocked to “Champagne Fairs” in the French county of Champagne, where they sold many textiles and spices. Usually, they held six fairs a year, with the first held annually on the 2nd January. The second took place on the Tuesday before “mid-Lent” and the third on the Tuesday before Ascension Day. The fourth fair, known as the “fair of St. John”, occurred on the Tuesday after St John’s Day (24th June), which celebrates the birth of Saint John the Baptist. The fair of St. Ayoul always took place on 14th September to mark the Exaltation of the Cross, and the final fair took place on All Souls’ Day (2nd November).

The Champagne Fairs made different qualities of wool available to other areas of Europe, and the trade became a serious moneymaker for much of the Southern continent. Italy remained the forerunner of wool production until the 15th century when English exports outranked them. As mentioned above, wool arrived on the British Isles with the Romans, but it was not until the 12th century that wool became Britain’s greatest asset.

Cistercians at work in a detail from the Life of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, illustrated by Jörg Breu the Elder (1500)

Cistercian Abbeys around Europe were instrumental in the success of the wool trade. Known for their “enterprise and entrepreneurial spirit,” they “were catalysts for development of a market economy” for much of the 12th century. Cistercians owned a lot of farmland on which they grew crops and bred animals, including sheep. England, in particular, was indebted to the Order for starting a successful wool trade with other countries. The Cistercians sent raw wool to cities in Flanders, where it was dyed and refined into cloth. The income from this industry was significant for the English Crown, which imposed an export tax on wool known as the “Great Custom”.

Maltolt, meaning “bad tax” in Norman-French, is the name given to a series of wool taxes between 1294 and 1297. Taxes imposed in 1275 granted Edward I (1239-1307) a half-mark customs duty per exported sack of wool, but when the Anglo-French War began in 1294, the price increased. All wool gathered in England belonged to the king who charged traders 40 shillings per sack. Unhappy with the “Great Custom”, a group of noblemen wrote a series of complaints or Monstraunces to the king’s government. They claimed the Maltolt had driven the country to poverty amongst other grievances, forcing Edward to cease the taxes.

The Woolsack

By the 14th century, the wool trade was of great importance to the economy of England. Wishing to symbolise this, King Edward III (1327-77) suggested his Lord Chancellor should sit on a wool bale whilst in council. Now known as the Woolsack, the tradition has passed down the centuries and is still used today. The bale has been replaced many times, but in 1938 the House of Lords discovered the Woolsack stuffed with horsehair. Since reupholstered and filled with wool, the Woolsack is covered with red cloth and includes a backrest for more comfort. Since 2006, it is the Lord Speaker who sits on the Woolsack rather than the Lord Chancellor.

Although England was one of the largest wool exporters, they relied on other countries to turn the wool into garments and so forth. During the 14th century, Flemish weavers fled to England to escape taxes in Flanders, bringing with them their knowledge of weaving. Under their expertise, England could turn their wool into cloth, thus being able to trade both raw fleeces and textiles. By the time of the Black Death (1346-53), the most fatal pandemic to date, England accounted for approximately 10% of the wool trade.

The plague halted wool production, but by the 15th century, trade picked up once again. The English wool industry far surpassed the continent, and the government began to discourage exportation. When the Huguenots, French Protestants, fled to England in the early 16th century, they brought their weaving knowledge and expertise. With their help, the English industry became self-sufficient, no longer needing to send fleece abroad to transform into cloth.

Determined to be more successful than Flanders and Italy, England outlawed wool exportation. Nonetheless, this did not stop people from trying to ship the material to France. Known as Owlers because they worked predominantly at night, participants smuggled 480,000 pounds of wool a year across The Channel. They usually set off from Romney Marsh, sparsely inhabited wetlands in Kent and East Sussex, but the government soon found out, and those caught lost their hands as punishment.

In 1699, William III (1650-1702) issued An Act to prevent the Exportation of Wool out of the Kingdoms of Ireland and England into Forreigne parts and for the Incouragement of the Woollen Manufactures in the Kingdom of England. The act aimed to squash the growing woollen industry in Ireland and the American colonies. It also forbade the use of foreign wool, meaning shopkeepers in England could only sell clothing made from the fleeces of English sheep. The government wished to profit from the English wool trade without any other country benefiting from sales. Naturally, several people opposed this rule and wool was transported overseas by Owlers and sold on the black market.

Queen Bertha of Burgundy instructing girls to spin flax on spindles using distaffs

Until the 18th century, the wool industry relied on manual spinning wheels and looms to create cloth. Known as the “cottage industry”, many did this from the comfort of their own homes. The homemade garments, usually produced by women, were made from raw wool supplied by a subcontractor. The subcontractor often employed many women and families to produce cloth for a small amount of money.

Harris Tweed

Manual labour in the cottage industry was slow, but subcontractors usually had several workers, allowing them to make a steady profit. One notable brand, Harris Tweed, began its life as a cottage industry in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Islanders living on Lewis and Harris, the Uists, Benbecula, and Barra made a living as crofters, weaving cloth for personal and practical uses. The islands were often cold, so the inhabitants needed thick clothing, but they also sold fabric to the mainland for income. Using only pure wool from sheep on the islands, Harris Tweed is easily identifiable from flecks of colour made from natural dyes. Although the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century sped up cloth production, Harris Tweed is still produced by hand. The fabric is often sought after in the fashion industry and is used by many companies, including Hugo Boss, Topman, Nordstrom, Dr Martens, and Nike.

Handloom weaving in 1747, from William Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness

The Industrial Revolution (1750-1850) brought radical changes to wool production, almost putting cottage industries out of business. Many inventors built devices to help speed up the textile making process. Machines, such as handlooms, worked better for cotton, which is finer than wool. Soon the cotton industry surpassed the wool industry with over 900 factories in Britain by 1797. At that time, cotton made up 2.6% of Britain’s textile output, which increased to 17% in 1801. Wool, on the other hand, only rose from 10% to 14.1%.

Until the 18th century, textile workers used man-powered spinning wheels to turn wool into yarn (balls of wool). To lessen the manual labour, English inventor John Kay (1704-79) patented the flying shuttle in 1733, which halved the production time. Operated by one person, the frame used a series of mechanisms to spin the wool into long strands. In 1764, Lancashire weaver James Hargreaves (1720-78) developed the spinning jenny, which allowed a single worker to spin up to eight spools of wool at a time. As technology improved, this increased to 120.

The first machine that did not rely on human power to work was the water frame, patented by Richard Arkwright (1732-92) in 1767. Initially used for cotton rather than wool, the machine’s mechanisms were powered by a waterwheel. Usually made from wood and fitted with buckets or blades, the wheels were attached to the walls of the mills and factories above a running stream. As the water flowed against the buckets or blades, the wheel turned, thus powering the machines inside. The downside to this invention was its reliance on water flow. They required fast-moving streams that would not dry up in the summer months. This requirement limited the number of places suitable for such mills.

A Roberts self-acting spinning mule

For places without access to suitable water streams, Samuel Crompton invented the spinning mule in 1779. Although this involved manual labour, each machine held 1,320 spindles, significantly increasing the output of the textile industry. By 1825, inventor Richard Roberts (1789-1864) improved production further by patenting the self-acting mule. After starting the mule by hand, each mechanism caused a chain reaction so that the machine continued moving for a length of time. The self-acting mule grew popular and gradually replaced the previous machines. Roberts invention was a vital piece of equipment until the mid-20th century when electric looms became favourable.

Engraving of Ned Ludd, Leader of the Luddites, 1812

Sadly, the introduction of machines cost many people their jobs. Factories needed fewer people to spin the wool, increasing unemployment. In 1812, a secret organisation called the Luddites protested against the Industrial Revolution, destroying textile machinery in the process. Led by Ned Ludd, a weaver from Leicester, the Luddites met at night on the outskirts of industrial towns to plan their attacks. After entering the town, they smashed machines and sent death threats to factory owners before escaping through secret getaway chambers.

“I have been in some of the most oppressed provinces of Turkey; but never, under the most despotic of infidel governments, did I behold such squalid wretchedness as I have seen since my return, in the very heart of a Christian country.” So said Lord Byron (1788-1824) in the House of Lords regarding the Luddite Riots. The British Army frequently clashed with the Luddites, arresting many participants who faced a mass trial in York in January 1813. Parliament passed the Frame Breaking Act, which made machine sabotage a capital punishment. At least 60 men were found guilty and sentenced to either execution or penal transportation. Fearful of this new law, the Luddite organisation disbanded.

Despite their methods of protest, the Luddites made a valid point about the Industrial Revolution. Traditional textile industries, particularly those in East Anglia, suffered greatly. Instead, large cities, such as York, developed into industrial areas, taking work away from people in small towns and villages. Transporting criminals to the colonies also backfired on the British economy. Those sent to Australia found jobs raising sheep and producing wool. By 1845, the Australian wool industry surpassed Britain, even providing wool for British factories.

The history of balls of wool or yarn is less precise than wool in general. It is assumed manufacturers first wound the spun wool into balls or skeins to avoid knots and snags many centuries ago, but it is uncertain when wool became commercially available in this manner. Today, balls of wool come in all colours and sizes and are used by those who knit for a hobby as well as clothing factories. Yet, knitting was not always a hobby but a necessity. Before cheap clothing stores, women made garments from scratch to clothe their families. The oldest knitted artefacts are socks dating from 11th century Egypt, although evidence suggests the technique predates archaeological evidence.

Madonna Knitting, by Bertram of Minden 1400-1410

Archaeologists have discovered knitting needles and crochet hooks in the Middle East dating back to the 3rd century AD. In Europe, the earliest evidence of this skill comes from 13th-century Spanish tombs in the royal Abbey of Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas. Records suggest Christians hired Muslim slaves to produce knitted garments, but in the 14th century, it became a respected skill amongst all women. Several paintings from the 14th and 15th century depict the Virgin Mary knitting clothes for her son, Jesus Christ.

Long before the Industrial Revolution, inventors found ways to speed up the knitting process. In 1589, English clergyman William Lee (1563-1614) devised the stocking frame, controlled by a series of pedals and levers. Unfortunately, Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) refused to grant him a patent because the woollen stockings were too rough for her royal ankles. This had no reflection on the machine but rather her preference for silk. Despite this rejection, Lee found success in France when King Henri IV (1553-1610) offered him financial support.

The Knitting Woman by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1869

Unlike the machinery invented during the Industrial Revolution, the stocking frame never found its way into factories. Instead, workers used them at home in their cottage industries, which only went out of fashion after the introduction of steam-powered knitting machines in the 19th century. Hand-knitting quickly declined in the clothing industry, but it increased in popularity as a hobby. Authors such as Jane Gaugain (d.1860) published books about this leisure activity, featuring many knitting patterns.

During the First World War, the government encourage women, men and children to knit clothing for allied soldiers. This included socks, hats, gloves and scarves because frostbite was as deadly as the enemy. The Red Cross published pamphlets to teach the unskilled how to knit. These were also sent to soldiers so they could repair damaged clothing.

After the war, knitting continued as a popular hobby, and knitted garments became fashionable. In the 1930s, families began knitting out of desperation during the Great Depression because it was far cheaper to make clothes than purchase them. Some knitters even sold their items to make money.

The Second World War sparked the Make Do and Mend campaign. As well as knitting for soldiers, the Ministry of Information published pamphlets encouraging households to limit waste at the height of rationing. The booklets provided instructions about darning socks, patching holes and making many items of clothing. Whilst this helped the country save on resources, it also boosted morale by making people on the “home front” feel they were doing their bit for the war effort.

During the 1950s and 60s, knitted clothing, particularly in bright colours, became haute couture. The government thought knitting was a useful skill and made it a part of the school curriculum, although only for girls. This changed after factories started using computerised knitting machines, allowing them to mass-produce knitted garments and sell them at low prices. By the 1990s, younger generations rejected the skill as an “old person’s thing”.

The 21st century is experiencing a resurgence in knitting, often inspired by celebrities and online craft blogs. The internet allows people to share their ideas and creations, which are far more inventive than the scarves and socks usually associated with the hobby. Magazines, websites, and videos provide everything beginners and advanced knitters need to know to create amazing outcomes, all of which start life as a simple ball of wool.

There ends the long and varied history of a mundane object. At first glance, a ball of wool may not seem an exciting topic, but after picking at the surface, a never-ending story unravels. So, dear reader, I hope I have lived up to your claim that I “can make anything interesting”.


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The History of Jeans

Jeans (noun) hard-wearing casual trousers made of denim or other cotton fabric.

Originally designed for miners, jeans have been items of fashion since the 1950s when actors, such as Marlon Brando (1924-2004) and James Dean (1931-55), wore them in popular films. Rebellious teenagers adopted jeans and other denim clothing as signs of rebellion, but from the 1960s onwards, jeans became the typical clothing of the younger generation. Today, jeans are the most popular style of trousers in Western culture, worn by people of all ages. Although this style of fashion is relatively new, jeans have a longer history than one might expect.

The word “jean” allegedly comes from the French name for the Italian city of Genoa: Gênes. During the 16th century, textile workers in Genoa developed a fustian (heavy woven) cloth of “medium quality and of reasonable cost” suitable for everyday work clothes. The Genoese Navy commissioned trousers of this material for their sailors because they were suitable for wearing in both dry and wet conditions. In France, they developed a similar but coarser textile. The term “Denim” is a contraction of de Nîmes, meaning “from Nîmes”, a place in France. Traders considered Nîmes’s “denim” higher quality, which they dyed blue using indigo from Indian bush plantations.

A Beggar Boy with a Piece of Pie – The Master of the Blue Jeans, c.17th century

The first recorded quantity of “jean fustians” arriving in the British Isles is from 1576, and by the 17th century, the working-class in Northern Ireland relied on the jean fabric for their clothing. Being cheaper, they typically used the Genoese material, which an anonymous artist, nicknamed The Master of the Blue Jeans, depicted in his paintings.

Jean and denim developed over time to resemble the fabric we are familiar with today. A third fabric of a similar nature appeared in India during the 17th century. Even cheaper than Genoese jean, the off-coloured blue or white fabric was worn by the poor people of the village of Dongri, near Bombay. It is from this name that we get the word “dungaree”.

Until the 19th century, “jean” was the name of the fabric rather than the style of trousers. In 1795, the Swiss banker Jean-Gabriel Eynard (1775-1863) travelled to Genoa in search of commercial ways to make money. André Masséna, 1st Duke of Rivoli (1758-1817), entrusted Eynard with making purchases for his French troops, who fought in the French Revolutionary Wars. Eynard commissioned Genoese textile workers to produce uniforms for the soldiers, including trousers made from a blue fabric called bleu de Genes. This garment style grew in popularity and became known in English speaking countries as “blue jeans”.

Levi Strauss

The man credited as the first manufacturer of jeans as we know them today is not Eynard but rather Levi Strauss (1829-1902). Born in Germany, Strauss moved to the United States at the age of 18 to join his brothers Jonas and Louis, who ran a dry goods business in New York called J. Strauss Brother & Co. After working for a while with his brothers, Strauss decided to move to San Francisco to live with his sister Fanny and her husband, David Stern (1820-75).

In 1853, Strauss became an American citizen and set up a wholesale business with his brother-in-law. David Stern & Levi Strauss, later renamed Levi Strauss & Co., imported material from Europe, from which they made clothing, bedding, handkerchiefs, tents and so forth. Using a canvas material, Levi Strauss & Co. produced sturdy trousers for farmers, factory workers and miners. After experimenting, Strauss and Stern discovered denim cloth was more suitable.

US Patent No. 139,121

In 1872, one of Strauss’ regular customers, Latvian-born tailor Jacob Davis (1831-1908), approached him with a proposition. For some time, Davis had produced trousers for working men from duck cloth, which he purchased from Strauss. To make weak seams and pockets stronger, Davis added copper rivets, which proved a great success. His trousers sold quickly, and before long, he could not keep up with the sales. Noticing Levi Strauss & Co. were selling trousers made from the more practical denim fabric, Davis asked Strauss for financial backing to make denim trousers with rivets and apply for a patent. After agreeing to become partners, Strauss and Davis worked together to produce these new trousers, later known as jeans. On 20th May 1870, they received US patent No. 139,121 for an “Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings”.

The first jeans, or “waist overalls” as they were known at the time, had two pockets at the front and one at the back, in which workers could place various items when needed. As the trousers grew in popularity, men of other professions began wearing them. After this, Strauss added a third smaller pocket at the front for pocket watches. Initially, jeans were designed with men in mind and fastened with a zip fly down the front. When women started wearing jeans, the company manufactured female versions with a fly on the left side. Later, the fly was moved to the front of the trousers.

Levi’s 501

“Few pieces of clothing genuinely deserve the title of “icon.” The Levi’s 501 sits right at the top of that very short list. “

Jonathan Evans, Esquire

In 1901, Strauss added another pocket on the back of the jeans, taking the total up to five. Known as their 501 model, the style quickly caught on and became the standard design in the fashion industry. One-hundred and twenty years later, the 501 model is still going strong, although with minor alterations.

Ladies Iridescent Ranch Pants

The first line of jeans specifically targeted at women appeared in 1934. For some years, women had worn men’s jeans or “waist overalls”, but Strauss noticed they were not suited to the female figure. Levi’s 701, with a zip on the left side, were instantly popular amongst women who lived or worked on farms and ranches. For others, they were considered inappropriate and unacceptable, at least until the 1950s. Levi Strauss & Co. produced female jeans long before trousers became an acceptable fashion for women. For this reason, the company is recognised as a champion of women’s equality with men.

Until the 1950s, jeans were only worn by those working outdoors. After the release of film dramas, such as Rebel Without a Cause starring James Dean, youths adopted jeans as a sign of rebellion. Yet, the more people who jumped on this bandwagon, the more mainstream jeans became. By the 1960s and 70s, jeans were an accepted form of casual clothing. Many fashion companies manufactured and sold styles based on the original designs by Levi Strauss & Co.

As of the 2010s, jeans are both a casual and fashionable item of clothing for both men and women. Manufacturers sell jeans for all occasions in a range of styles. Whilst some brands are expensive, most people can afford cheaper pairs of jeans dyed with synthetic indigo rather than a natural dye. Although blue is the traditional colour of jeans, they are now available in a range of different colours.

A sketch of Levi Strauss jeans © Sophie Glover

As well as experimenting with the style of jeans, manufacturers have made alterations to make the fabric more durable. When Levi Strauss & Co. sold their first range of jeans, people washed their clothing less frequently than today. When the electric washing machine arrived in 1908, people noticed that frequent washing caused the denim material to shrink. In 1962, Levi Strauss & Co. introduced pre-shrunk jeans, which would not shrink further when washed. Known as 505 jeans, they were identical to the iconic 501, except the company guaranteed the jeans would remain the same shape.

The process of pre-shrinking allowed manufacturers to produce specific cut jeans of varying sizes. In 1969, Levi Strauss & Co. introduced boot-cut jeans (517), which suited a slim waist but fitted over a pair of boots. Later, they designed another version with a lower waistline (527). As fashions changed over the decades, clothing companies altered their jeans to suit, for example, slim, skinny, baggy and tapered jeans.

Stone-washed jeans

“In 1965, Limbo was the first retailer to wash a new pair of jeans to get a used, worn effect, and the idea became a hit.” 

Michael Belluomo, editor of Sportswear International Magazine, Oct/Nov 1987

Although the shrinking issue had been addressed, washing machines altered the appearance of jeans by fading the colour. In 1965, a New York boutique called Limbo used this to their advantage, selling jeans with a washed, worn look. This new idea caught on, and textile makers started experimenting with various ways to create this effect.

Many consumers bought regular jeans and purposely altered the colour by frequent washing. Surfers in California bleached their jeans with saltwater and hung them in direct sunlight to fade. This lived-in appearance grew popular in the 1960s, but the process took weeks to perfect. Today, manufacturers use a pumice stone and chlorine to create the same effect, which they sell under the label “acid-wash” or “stone-washed”.

Snow wash jeans

In the 1980s, punk rockers used bleach to create faded patterns on their jeans. Rather than altering the colour of the entire fabric, this technique left sections of the original dark blue dye around the seams. Once again, fashion companies, including Levi Strauss & Co., caught on and manufactured similar jeans, which they labelled “snow wash” or “pre-washed”. This style grew popular, taking the association away from punk rockers.

Subcultures continued to find ways to make their jeans unique, such as adding embroidery, metal studs and rhinestones. Each time, manufacturers caught on and replicated the style. Even jeans with deliberate rips and tears became popular, often costing more than a regular pair.

Today, many styles of jeans are available, regardless of current fashions. Trends quickly come and go, often influenced by celebrities. During the late 2000s, skinny jeans were popular in youth cultures, but after Canadian singer Justin Bieber (b.1994) endorsed low-rise jeans in 2017, they became the latest fashion. On the other hand, rappers inspired fans to wear baggy or sagging jeans, often worn several inches below the waist.

Buying jeans can be confusing because of all the various names and styles. Cigarette jeans, for example, are similar to skinny jeans but are the same width from the knee to the ankle. Skinny jeans hug the calves, and straight jeans are the same width from the top of the leg to the bottom. To add to the confusion, some brands give these jeans different names.

Wide-leg is another term for baggy jeans, which are currently popular in “gangsta rap” subcultures. For centuries, baggy trousers have come in and out of fashion. In the 1500s, loose-fitting breeches were the norm until aristocrats wished to differentiate themselves from the masses, after which they wore tight clothing. Yet, when the general public adopted this new fashion, the upper classes reclaimed baggy trousers. During the early 20th century, baggy trousers were a sign of rebellion because they went against the prim-and-proper fashion of the day. The 1950s and 1990s saw a rise in baggy jeans amongst the general public, inspiring subcultures to adopt skinny jeans to differentiate themselves from mainstream cultures. Today, rappers wear baggy jeans to set themselves apart from the skin-tight jeans worn by “metalheads”.

Bootcut jeans regained popularity in the 2000s by those who did not wish to identify with either rappers or “metalheads”. By 2006, women’s bootcut jeans became thinner across the thighs, emphasising their body shape. Gradually, the material around the ankles also reduced until skinny jeans became the new norm. To compensate for this change in fashion, “metalheads” and rock stars began wearing even thinner jeans, known as super-skinny or drainpipes.

Jeggings

For many people, skinny jeans were not a comfortable addition to their wardrobe, but to keep up with the latest trends, they felt obliged to replace their baggy jeans. Realising this, jean manufacturers designed an alternative to skinny jeans. Jeggings, a portmanteau of the words jeans and leggings, appeared on the market in 2010. Whilst they have the appearance of denim jeans, jeggings have the comfort and feel of cotton leggings, which stretch easily over the leg.

Today, the average person owns seven pairs of jeans or items of clothing made from denim. Skirts, shorts, shoes and jackets have appeared as alternatives or accompaniments to jeans. Approximately 7.5 billion feet of denim is produced every year to keep up with the demand. Despite their popularity, jeans are not an appropriate form of clothing in some establishments. In recent years, some places of work have relaxed their rules about clothing to allow workers to wear jeans, so long as they appear smart. Posh hotels, restaurants and parties for distinguished guests continue to turn away people who arrive wearing denim.

Admittedly, jeans are not for everyone, and some people may have never owned a pair of jeans, let alone seven. Yet, everyone is familiar with the blue trousers and denim fabric. Nearly every clothing store stocks jeans, and it is impossible to walk through a town without seeing someone wearing denim. The history of blue jeans is relatively short, yet they have influenced the fashions of the (western) world. We must wait and see what jeans have in store for us next.


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The High-Life

High-heeled shoes are a popular accessory in women’s fashion. They make the wearer appear taller, emphasise the calf muscle and accentuate the length of the leg. There are many different styles and can be found in cultures all over the world. In some cultures, high-heeled shoes have significant meanings, which have changed throughout history, and it was not always women that wore them.

In an online exhibition put together by French fashion expert Maude Bass-Krueger, the history of men wearing high-heeled shoes is looked at through a series of paintings from galleries all over the world. The High-Life: A History of Men in Heels reveals the varied cultural meanings and symbolism of high-heels within the past 1000 years. From high social stature to fashionable tastes, history proves that high-heels were originally intended for men.

Screen Shot 2020-05-09 at 13.22.02

Dish with Rider

High heels date back as far as the tenth century. This dish, which can be seen in Pergamonmuseum in Berlin, was excavated from Nishapur, Iran and has been dated to the time of the Samanid Empire (874-1005). It shows an armed figure upon a horse surrounded by birds, crosses and other Arabic symbols. It is not certain what the decorations mean but the main illustration provides an insight into the armour of a Samanid soldier.

The soldier appears to be wearing some form of chainmail to protect his body from enemy swords. Upon his head is a helmet and on his feet is an early version of a riding boot – a boot with heels. As well as fighting with swords, soldiers fought with bows and arrows, which required the use of both hands. To do this without falling off their horses, soldiers needed a sturdy saddle with stirrups to keep their legs in place. A heeled shoe helped the soldiers keep their feet in the stirrups more than a flat shoe, which could easily slip out. It is thought the modern cowboy boot derives with this 10th-century idea.

By the 17th century, it was the norm for Persian riders to wear one-inch heels, regardless as to whether they were on horseback or walking. Horses were expensive, therefore, owning one was a symbol of wealth. Subsequently, the heeled shoes signified the wearer had money and power. Evidence of these shoes can be seen in a 17th-century version of Mūsā Nāma (The Book of Moses) by Mulana Shāhīn Shirazi, a compilation of illustrated books of the Bible (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). Although it was originally written in Judaeo-Persian in 1372, an illustrated copy dating to 1686 can be found in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

One particular page of the illuminated manuscript shows an early episode in the life of Moses. The book combines Jewish, Muslim and Persian legends, however, it is clear this particular image represents the discovery of the baby Moses floating on the Nile in a basket. Pharoah’s daughter, who discovered the basket, is kneeling by the river. Behind her are two male Persians, evidenced by their facial hair, wearing expensive silk robes embroidered with gold. Their shoes feature the customary one-inch heel that was worn by the rich at the time the illumination was made.

High-heeled culture eventually made its way to Europe during the 17th century. The Persian Shah ordered his soldiers to travel to Russia, Germany and Spain to forge relationships with foreign leaders. With them, they brought items from the East, which sparked “Persia-mania” in Europe. People were intrigued and began to desire Persian art, Persian fashion and Persian shoes. Heels became a symbol of masculine strength, wealth and military valour amongst European aristocrats.

Evidence of Persian influence on Europe can be seen in the oil painting The Archdukes Albert and Isabella Visiting a Collector’s Cabinet, which hangs in The Walters Art Museum in Maryland, USA. Believed to be a collaboration between Hieronymus Francken II (1578-1623) and Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625), the painting shows the joint rulers of the Spanish Netherlands, Archdukes Albert (1559-1621) and Isabella (1566-1633), visiting a collector’s cabinet. These type of constkamer (gallery) paintings were popular at the beginning of the 17th century, particularly in Antwerp where this painting is believed to have been produced.

The painting shows a large room full of various forms of art and visitors, including Albert and Isabella. As well as Flemish paintings and sculptures, there are many examples of plants, animals and minerals, for example, a couple of small monkeys and exotic flowers. Of course, the greatest evidence of Persian influence is the footwear of male visitors. Whereas women covered up their legs and feet with long, heavy skirts, 17th-century male fashion emphasised the legs with tight, coloured stockings to emphasise the shape of their calves and thighs. The high-heeled shoes added to the length of the leg and men drew attention to them by their posed stances.

The most famous male wearer of heels in Europe was most likely King Louis XIV (1638-1715) of France, also known as the Sun King. During his reign, men wore heels to show they were upper-class and wealthy. The lower classes could not afford such extravagant shoes, nor were they practical for certain workplaces. By 1670, so many of the elite were competing for the higher heel, Louis passed an edict that stated only nobility could wear heels.

“Half inch for commoners, 1 inch for the bourgeois, 1 and ½ inches for knights, 2 inches for nobles, and 2 and ½ inches for princes,” were the new regulations for heel length. Women were also appropriating the heeled-shoe, which led to the added rule that men only wore thick heels and women wore skinny ones.

Most portraits of Louis XIV were full length and showed off his legs and high-heeled shoes. One painting, which hangs in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, emphasises the magnificence of the royal family. Either painted by the Baroque painter Hyacinthe Rigaud (1659-1743) or someone in his workshop, the state portrait details Louis’ haughty expression, his elegant stance, his ceremonial robes, and, of course, his high-heeled shoes. Usually, shoes were all one colour, however, Louis wore white shoes with a red heel. The colour showed that Louis was rich and powerful and he only allowed those in his favour to wear red heels. When looking at paintings of the 18th-century French aristocracy, a glance at the colour of their shoes reveals who Louis trusted most.

British artist William Hogarth (1697-1764) demonstrates the differences between men and women’s high heeled shoes in his comic paintings Before and After. The shoes are clearer in the first painting, in which a man in red breeches is trying to lure a woman into his bed. The man’s shoe is much broader and sturdier than the woman’s, whose shoe is narrower and more ornamental. The man’s heel is also a lot lower than the shoes men previously wore. The style of shoe was gradually becoming more feminine and, by 1730, most British men had stopped wearing heels altogether.

Heels continued to be popular in France for a bit longer, however, the French Revolution in 1789 put an end to the aristocratic high heel. Before then, in 1770, Britain had introduced an act of parliament that applied a penalty to the use of high heels. The act also applied to hooped skirts, false hair and cosmetics.

Heels came back into fashion in the 1860s, however, only for women. The invention of the sewing machine meant shoes could be produced quickly and cheaply, allowing women from all classes to wear heels.

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Western Boots

Although European men no longer wore heels, certain lifestyles around the world considered heels to be a practical form of footwear. Animal herders on ranches in North America, for example, took a leaf out of the Persian calvary’s book and added heels to their boots to help keep their feet in their stirrups. Cowboy boots, as they later became known, were a brief fashion fad in the late 20th century, however, they were originally made to protect the cowboys as they went about their everyday lives.

The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma owns several pairs of cowboy boots, for example, a pair owned by Orvon Grover “Gene” Autry (1907-98), a rodeo performer nicknamed The Singing Cowboy who went on to star in many television shows. Originally, cowboy boots were individually made and varied in style depending on the culture. Although Autry’s boots feature decorative stitching, they probably do not have any cultural significance and he would have worn them when singing on stage rather than when riding.

Traditional cowboy boots were devoid of laces, which sometimes adorn modern versions since they could easily get caught on plants and so forth. The boots were usually made of leather, which protected the majority of the lower leg. The heel, which was over one inch high, could easily hook over the stirrups and keep the legs in place when riding at speed on the ranch. Later, the heels were lowered to make the boots practical for both riding and walking.

During Queen Victoria‘s (1819-1901) reign, her shoemaker made a special boot with a low heel that she could wear when either walking or riding. The fashion caught on and became a prominent style until the onset of World War One. Usually made in King’s Road, Chelsea, the boots became known as Chelsea Boots.

Legend has it that in 1961 when two members of The Beatles, John Lennon (1940-80) and Paul McCartney (b.1942), were shopping in Chelsea, they spotted a pair of Chelsea Boots and commissioned four pairs with a Cuban heel. This style was slightly higher than the 7.5 mm continental heel and soon became The Beatles’ signature look. Now known as the “Beatle Boot”, the boots became popular with both male and female singers and fans during the 1960s and early 1970s. The following Punk movement saw a rapid decline in the style, however, since 2000, the boots have once again been growing in popularity.

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David Bowie

David Bowie (1947-2016), the glam rock singer, pushed gender fashion boundaries by wearing all sorts of high-heeled shoes. By the height of his career, the history of high-heels had been forgotten and they were considered to be female-only shoes.

Bowie’s choice of shoes originally complimented his androgynous alter egos, such as Ziggy Stardust and Major Tom. Rumour spread that Bowie was homosexual or gender fluid, which was still frowned upon at the time. Bowie denied the rumours but later admitted he was bisexual. His eclectic choice of clothing made him a fashion icon, particularly amongst those who were non-binary gender. Bowie also encouraged an entire generation to accept those whose sexuality or gender did not conform to social norms.

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Prince, 1986

Other music artists followed Bowie’s lead and began wearing high heels on the stage. The American rock band Mötley Crüe is one example. Known for their outrageous clothing and heavily applied make-up, the band members also wore extreme high-heeled boots. The American singer Prince (1958-2016) is also remembered for his choice of footwear. Being only 5’3″ tall, Prince wore specially built shoes with a 4″ heel to make him appear taller. Throughout his career, he had around 3,000 pairs of high-heeled shoes made to his measurements.

By the 1990s, male high-heels were associated with a rough, rocker aesthetic. In general, men consider heels to be part of women’s fashion and it is only the more outlandish male celebrity that would dare to wear them. Yet, cowboy boots are distinctly masculine, so why is it unacceptable for men to wear heels in other situations?

Today, many male shoes have a small heel but what they do not realise is this is a descendant of the high-heeled fashion of the 17th-century. Gender stereotypes have prevented men from wearing anything higher for fear of being accused of homosexuality. Although people are much more accepting of different forms of sexuality, there is still a huge difference between male and female clothing and footwear.

Who knows what the future holds for the high-heel? Fashions and fads come and go. Perhaps men will be wearing heels again in the not-so-distant future, after all, the male heel is still very much part of some cultural identities.

 

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