We have been standing tall in shoes for a very long time. Women in ancient Greece and Rome wore thick-soled sandals. Qabaqib, wooden clogs, kept feet high and dry in bathhouses across the Ottoman Empire.
But the skyscraper of footwear was arguably the chopine, worn by noble Venetian women in the late 1500s. The tallest known example of this platform shoe, now in Florence’s Museo Stefano Bardini, tops out at almost two feet. A shorter but still impressively lofty one is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, from September 9 through January 7.
Venetian chopines were not meant to be seen, says Elizabeth Semmelhack, director of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto (which also showcases a chopine). They were hidden under the wearers’ skirts. The higher the shoe, the longer the skirt, allowing for a greater display of the opulent textiles that proclaimed family wealth and were a foundation of the economy in Venice.
Brides braving the shoes for the first time went to a ballet master to learn how to walk. But extremely high chopines required the support of an attendant on either side of the wearer, who advanced “like a parade float,” says Semmelhack.
For these elevated ladies with their sidecars of servants, chopines telegraphed status—much as a pair of Manolo Blahnik pumps does today.