The first shoes worn in the civilized world were probably flats—sandals, to be more precise, similar to the 5,000-year-old antiquities from ancient Egypt. Heels came into vogue sometime in the Middle Ages, reaching the height of their popularity in the 17th- and 18th-century courts of Europe. They might have remained so had Marie Antoinette not worn a pair of high-heel shoes to the guillotine, which soured the public on what was suddenly considered a showy and unseemly shoe.

Flats ruled until the late 1800s, when heels once again came into fashion. But flats never really went away. Two especially ubiquitous types of flats that had a renaissance of sorts at the beginning of the 20th century were the slipper and the espadrille.

In those days, slippers were not just for padding around the house. During the Belle Époque, for example, the practice of sipping champagne from a lady’s slipper was a testament to the quality of the footwear. Some were made of satin, richly embroidered, and trimmed with pleated ribbon. Others were printed in honeycomb or other cheerful patterns, which brought the shoe to the masses.

Contemporary designers who have explored the limits of the slipper include Philippe Model, whose red slippers from the 1980s boasted gold soles and bouquets of satin ribbon. Willy van Rooy also made stylish slippers during the 1980s, using colorful upholstery-like fabrics on the uppers with golden sash-like belts on the vamp.

Andrea Pfister riffed on her own basketweave sandal when she created a spun gold and costume-jewel-studded slipper that resembled a flat mule with an upturned Turkish toe. And in the 1990s, Emma Hope took a men’s black-velvet evening slipper, added a rounded and pointed toe, and applied shimmering hearts and stars to the shoe’s brooding surface.

The espadrille, originally known as the alpargata, was a centuries-old creation of Spanish farmers, who made the soles of these inexpensive, disposable shoes from woven esparto grass, with uppers of cheap canvas. The casual-chic look caught on at Riviera resorts in the early 20th century, when they were renamed espadrilles.

Today inexpensive espadrilles can still be purchased, though most are made in Bangladesh, where plentiful supplies of jute are used for the soles. Despite the shoe’s peasant root...

Another precursor to the flat is the Native American moccasin, which was usually made of deerskin and decorated with beads. These shoes have also been re-imagined, most notably by Italian designer Diego Della Valle, whose Gommino shoe’s sold at his Tod’s stores are a hybrid of the moccasin and the loafer, with knobby non-skid soles and brightly colored suede uppers.

Loafers, of course, are one of the most classic flats. In particular, Belgian loafers have become something of a cult shoe thanks to their restricted supply—if you want a pair you pretty much have to visit one store in New York run by Henri Bendel. Anne Klein and Gucci are two other prominent names in loafers, as is Bass, whose Weejuns from the 1930s set the standard for this archetypal form of footwear.

Even designers best known for their stilettos do flats. Christian Louboutin’s are dyed in purple, red, or yellow, after which they are covered with spikes. And Manolo Blahnik’s slippers often drip with costume jewels until they resemble a Miriam Haskell or Trifari confection from the 1930s, ’40s, or ’50s.

Of course, designers like Louboutin and Blahnik are best known today for supplying high-heeled creations to pop and movie stars, but there was a time when Hollywood was infatuated with flats. In fact, the year can be precisely dated to 1957, when Audrey Hepburn starred in “Funny Face,” which paired the actress’s tapered Capri slacks with Capezio ballet flats.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

MyVintageVogue

MyVintageVogue

The history of 20th-century women’s fashion largely played out in the pages of magazines such as “Harper’s Ba… [read review or visit site]

All About Shoes

All About Shoes

From Canada's Bata Shoe Museum comes a visually impressive exhibit focusing on the history of the shoe from traditi… [read review or visit site]

Fashion Columbia Study Collection

Fashion Columbia Study Collection

The Fashion Columbia Study Collection (FCSC) is the digital home of the Columbia College Chicago’s fashion archiv… [read review or visit site]

Virtual Shoe Museum

Virtual Shoe Museum

This virtual museum from Shoe Icons Publishing showcases over 800 pairs of shoes and related reference information.… [read review or visit site]

1960s Fashion and Textiles

1960s Fashion and Textiles

Put on your go-go boots and check out this wavy, groovy tribute to 1960s fashion and textiles, courtesy of the Vict… [read review or visit site]

Vintage Fashion Guild

Vintage Fashion Guild

While primarily designed to steer buyers to online vintage clothing shops, this blog is chock full of interesting, … [read review or visit site]

Fashion-Era

Fashion-Era

Bursting at the seams with content, this site contains hundreds of pages of fashion and costume history, including … [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Most watched eBay auctions    

Chanel Black Mesh & Patent Leather Cap Toe Ballet Flats Size 39.5 New 14cAquazzura Belgravia Suede Lace-up Flats BlackChristian Louboutin Tan & Black Patent Paulina Flats Size 38Valentino Garavani Black Lace & Leather Espadrille Flats Size 40Chanel Leather Espadrilles Flats Size 39Authentic Valentino Rock Stud Flats Nude Patent...Chanel Navy Blue Canvas Cap Toe Espadrille Flats Shoes Size 38Tieks Ballet Flats - Never Worn! Brand New! Size 8-black Italian LeatherGuidi Handmade Beige Leather Flats Size 38 La GarconneWomen's Tangerine Tieks Flats Size 10100% Authentic Chanel Black Espadrilles Flats Size 37Charlotte Olympia Kitty Flats Red Silk Satin Size 40 BnibAuthentic Womens Canvas Logo Gucci Flats, Loafers Size 9 Driving ShoesAuth Chanel Navy Round Toe Floral Applique Ballet Flats Sz 37.5 7.5Christian Louboutin Siouxsie Flats Size 38.5Valentino Garavani ~nwd~ $745 Rockstud Womens 10 40 Leather Ballet Flats HfTory Burch Reva Flats Snake Size 7.5Valentino Rockstud Flats Hot Pink 39.5Nwob Tieks By Gavriell Sz 9 Fold Up Flats Silver/aqua Rubber Comfort SoleChristian Louboutin Leopard Flats (38)Tieks By Gavrieli Matte Black Leather Ballet Flats Size 8 (w/ Box, Bow, 2 Bags)Chloe' New Woman Black Suede Leather Ballet Flats Shoes Size 38 It $395 LoaferTory Burch Silver Reva Sz 7m Ballet Ballerina Flats Shoes Silver/beige LeatherChanel Black Leather & Suede Cap Toe Stretch Ballerina Ballet Flats Size 37.5Nib Gucci $610 Size 39.5 Black Suede & Gg Crystal Flats Shoes NewTieks Silver Lake Grey Designer Vegan Womens Ballet Flats Size 10 EucTieks Size 8 Foldable Ballet Flats, Cardinal RedTieks Ballet Flats Olive Size 12$725 Chanel Cc Logo Black & Gold Ballerina Ballet Flats Sz 35 Valentino Flats!Louis Vuitton FlatsTory Burch Mustard Yellow Espadrille Flats Shoes Size 9 NewChanel Beige And Black Flats Eu 38.5 100% AuthenticChanel Ballet Flats 37.5Tory Burch Reva Flats 7.5Salvatore Ferragamo Poppy Patent Leather ' Sanna' Gancio Buckle Flats 8.5 CBnib Chanel Rose Quilted Ballerina Ballet Flats Shoes Size 9 40 $795Chanel Women's Pink Black Leather Slip On Ballerina Flats Shoes Size Euro 36 BNew Ruby Red Patent Tieks Flats Shoes Size 8 Italian Leather Foldable TravelJimmy Choo Flats 38.5*~authentic Valentino Rockstud Cage Flats Nude Size 38.5!!!~*Christian Louboutin Gold Flats, Sz 38Prada Pointed Toe Tassel Ballet Flats Saffiano Patent Leather Nude Beige 39.5Authentic Salvatore Ferragamo Black Flats Shoes Size 7.5 Valentino Garavani Noir Black Patent Leather Rockstud Caged Ballet Flats, 39Lanvin Ballet Flats Patent Nude 38 *newGucci New Woman Patent Leather Logo Print Ballet Flats Shoes Size 40 Ita $403Louis Vuitton FlatsChanel Cc Logo Black Leather Classic Flats Sandals Slides Mules 39.5 9 $495100% Authentic Christian Louboutin Flats Size 38.5 Fits Size 7 1/2 UsAuthentic Roger Vivier Blue Suede Ballet Flats Sz 39Chanel Multicolored Tweed Plaid Print Capped Toe Bow Embellished Flats Sz 40 10Roger Vivier Flats 5.5Tory Burch Quinn Quilted Leather Ballet FlatsGucci New Woman Canvas Logo Print Ballet Flats Shoes Size 38.5 It Brown $462 NwtTory Burch Classic Black Leather Gold Logo Reva Ballet Flats Size 10Roger Vivier Flats 5.5Christian Louboutin Black Patent Leather Lattice Slingback Flats Size 38 8Salvatore Ferragamo Varina Patent Leather Flats New Bisque (cream) Sz 7b $495Stubbs & Wootton Beige Stirrup Embroidered Design Loafers/shoes/flats Sz 9