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

The VFG is a non-profit international educational organization dedicated to the promotion and preservation of vinta… [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    

Tieks By Gavrieli Ballet Flats Leather Metallic Pewter Women Size 8Tieks Matte Black Size 10 Ballet FlatsWomen's Valentino Caged Rock Stud Flats Tieks Sz 6 Champagne Ballet Flats Limited RetiredChanel Black Cc Monogram Leather Espadrille Flats Size 40Tieks Size 8 Metallic Gold Ballet Flats - Excellent Condition!Tieks Ballet Flats By Gavrieli California Patent Blue Leather Size Us 9 Euc$750 Chanel Beige Black Leather Cc Cap Ballet Ballerina Flats 38.5 Worn OnceTieks By Gavrieli, Metallic Pewter Leather Flats Size 9Women's Tieks Grey Ballet Flats Shoes Size 8 M Vegan Collection Silver LakeRare Champagne Tieks By Gavrieli Shimmering Leather Ballet Flats Size 9 EucTieks By Gavrieli - Size 11- Pacific Green - Nwob - Shoes Ballet Flats Leather Tory Burch Classic Reva New Womens 8.5 Black Leather Ballet Flats Shoes OeTieks Lilac Purple Italian Leather Ballet Flats Sz 7 New In Box W/ AccessoriesMiu Miu Ballerinas Ballet Strap Buckle Lace-up Flats No Ribbons 37 Sold OutAuthentic Tory Burch Minnie Travel Ballet Flats 9 Light Oak Nude Nappa LeatherChanel Ballet Ballerina Flats Brown And Black Leather Cc Cap Toe 38 Sz 8Tieks Ballet Flats Size 7 Pacific GreenChanel Black Leather Bow Detail Cap Toe Ballet Flats Size 40.5 10.5 In BoxTieks By Gavrieli Metallic Pewter 6 Ballet Flats Worn OnceChanel Lambskin Leather Cap Toe Elastic Ballerina Flats 37 Beige Black 162362Authentic Tory Burch Minnie Travel Ballet Flats 9 Black Nappa Leather ShoesTory Burch Caroline Blue Leather Ballet Flats With Gold Emblem Womens Size 7 MTieks Silver Screen Ballet Flats - Women's Size 11Chanel Navy Suede Cc Cap Toe Ballet Flats Size 8.5Cranes Size 10 Teak Ballet Flats, NibTieks Size 9 Sunset Stripe Vegan Ballet Flats Free ShippingLouboutin 'rosella' Ballet Flats Size 39 AuthenticChanel Beige Black Leather Cc Cap Toe Contrast Loafers Flats Size 38 8 In BoxChanel Womens Shoes Flats Multi-color Textile/leather Size 39.5 (us 9.5)Tieks By Gavrieli Navy Blue Ballet Flats Sz 8 ReadGucci Women's Black Floral Canvas Loafer Espadrille Flats Size 39.5 (u.s. 8.5-9)Chanel Gold Metallic Suede Leather Cap Toe Ballet Flats Size 38 8 In Box$895 Chanel Authentic Pink Black Leather Cap Toe Cc Logo Ballerina Flats 39.5Hermes Cerise Red Leather Innocent Lady Slingback Ballet Flats Size 37.5Tieks Black Flats Size 7 Valentino Red Black Leather Camouflage Print Pointed Toe Flats Size 40 10Christian Louboutin Patent Pigalle Follies Flats 35 Nude 162701Chanel Black Leather Cap Toe Ballet Flats Size 36 6J.crew Sloan Suede D'orsay Flats 7.5 Black ShoesTieks By Gavrieli Brown Camel Tan Ballet Flats Sz 8 Tieks By Gavrieli Ballet Flats Rose Gold Glam Women's Size 9Free People Royale Flats Size 38Tory Burch Reva Black Leather Gold Logo Ballerina Flats Womens Size 12 MChanel Black Ballerina Flats, Women's Size 40euTieks By Gavrieli - Sienna Brown Croc - Size 9 Flats Very Good Used ConditionLimited Edition Champagne Tieks Ballet Flats In Euc Size 8 Tory Burch Minnie Ballet Flats Fold & Go Travel Shoe Nappa Leather 9 French GrayChanel Black & Beige Cc Cap Toe Bow Ballet Ballerina Flats Sz 36 1/2Louis Vuitton FlatsSalvatore Ferragamo Women's Shoes Preita Size 9 Rubber Sandal Flats Cream NibNew $328 - Kate Spade - Sz 9.5 - Nadira Suede & Crystals Evening FlatsTory Burch Peacock Blue Tumbled Reva Flats Sz 10 Retail $225 Rare ColorChanel Beige Black Round Toe Strappy Ballet Flats Size 39.5 9.5Chanel Classic Brown & Black Leather Cap Toe "cc" Ballet Flats Sz 39.5 AuthenticTod's Leather Ballerina Flats With Safety Pin & Tassel Detail $450 Size 37Charlotte Olympia Dark Purple Gold Stitching Cat Design Ballet Flats Size 38.5 8New Tory Burch Camel Flats - Size 6Everlane Modern Loafer Flats (patent) Sz 7Tory Burch Reva Cobra-embossed Metallic Bronze Gold Ballet Flats Sz 7.5 $250