The Revolutionary History of Espadrilles
How a utilitarian peasant shoe became a symbol of rebellion.
BY Emily Lever | Aug 18, 2017 | Fashion
When summer rolls around, we face a sticky dilemma when it comes to footwear: Sneakers, all-purpose and eternally cool, tend to quickly turn swampy; and sandals, light and breathable, expose the toes, the ugliest part of the body. (You know it's true.) For centuries, inhabitants of modern-day Spain, southern France, and now around the world have proudly attired themselves in a shoe that splits the difference: the espadrille, a practical slip-on with a braided jute sole and a canvas upper.
SHOP Espadrilles: mrporter.com
Espadrilles first entered written history in 1322 by way of a Catalan text referencing "espardenyas." Today, though fashion brands have turned them into a high-end style statement, these shoes have humble origins and a complex history fraught with politics and yes, rebellion.
Much of this history hasn't been particularly well-documented, and it's important to understand why. As political economist Francesc Roca explains, "shoemaking is one of the poor cousins of historical memory." Unfortunately, this holds true for most garment-making (excluding those of royalty), as well as craftsmanship and folk art, which have been sorely neglected by historians. Espadrilles, it stands to reason, are no exception: they were worn by peasants and infantry, while the wealthy and powerful wore leather boots or silk slippers.
More than just a class signifier, espadrilles defined entire regions. While canvas shoes with woven soles are worn throughout the globe, espadrilles will forever be tied to the Basque Country and Catalonia. The notion of region became fiercely political in Europe beginning in the 19th century; as nation-states began to take shape, social and political elites started pushing nationalist ideas from above (usually to advance their own interests), and widespread suppression of regional identity would soon follow.
Image from Wikimedia Commons
In response, the Basque and Catalan movements were downright militant. While the fight for Catalan independence sprang up with a Republican, anti-royalist message, the Basque fighters drew on conservative, Nationalist ideas. Their footwear choices, however, were in lock step: A famous photo features Sabino Arana, the father of Basque nationalism, wearing embroidered espadrilles behind bars, having been jailed for his support of the Cuban revolution. In the Spanish Civil War, Catalan soldiers marched against the fascist armies clad in the working-class shoe. It wasn't a fashion statement: though they wore out quickly (meaning frequent replacing), espadrilles were still cheaper than military boots.
When the Republicans lost the civil war and the fascists came to power in Spain, Basque and Catalan identities were brutally repressed. General Francisco Franco targeted Basques in particular because their language was not of European origin, starting with the bombing and razing of the Basque town of Guernica during the war and continuing with prohibitions against speaking Basque once he became head of state in 1939. Identities that diverged from the normative Spanish identity that Franco promoted were regarded as a threat. During this period, regional separatist leaders and many other Spaniards were forced to flee the country.
Through the diaspora, espadrilles went far and wide, appearing on the feet of many cultural figures beyond their land of origin—even JFK was a fan. In Franco-Belgian youth magazine Spirou, they were worn by a comic book hero named Gaston Lagaffe, prefiguring the emancipatory spirit of the youth revolt of May 1968. Catalan artists Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí were often photographed in espadrilles, which helped popularize the style among a hip, bohemian crowd. And like many things that hip bohemian crowds have been enamored with, the shoes made their way to the fashion world, most notably in the 1970s when a designer named Yves Saint Laurent paired up with long-time espadrille manufacturers Isabel Sauras and Lorenzo Castañer to create a satin espadrille with a wedge heel, sending the shoe down the runway and into fashion history.
By 1977, Franco died, and with him the military dictatorship in Spain; Catalonia and the Basque country became autonomous regions in 1979. Even today, espadrilles continue to represent both regional identities. According to Eric Rémy, a French Catalan researcher specializing in cultures of consumerism, regional cultures in Western Europe are less political than they used to be. Where Catalan culture once defined a way of life in traditional, pre-industrial society, it is now in many ways commodified and serves as an aesthetic, even by Catalan people. The espadrille has followed a similar trajectory—like babouches, pointy slip-ons originating from the Amazigh people of Morocco, espadrilles have transformed from utilitarian shoes into signifiers of luxury.
While it may still be strange for many to see labourers' footwear sold at a high-fashion premium, in Europe, it's still quite common to see people out and about in a pair of casual, 5-euro espadrilles—a style choice worth endorsing. They're nonchalant, practical, and more environmentally sound than flip-flops, leather sandals, or sneakers. And though they've become depoliticized, espadrilles remain on the right side of history.