Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Tripping Out On Chopines: Eat Your Heart Out Lady Gaga

Venetian Women at their Toilet.  Paris Bordon c. 1545.
These courtesans would have undoubtedly been shod
in Chopines.  By the Renaissance, Venice has developed
a reputation as the epicenter for art and fashion.
Long before Lady Gaga stormed into our lives wearing death defying shoes and some glitter, Venetian women of the Italian Renaissance were teetering through flooded Piazzas in tricked out platforms that would make a 16th Century Gaga go gaga.

Chopines, as they are called, were elaborate platform slippers with wooden bases covered in tassels, lace, nail head, tooled leather and opulent silk and velvet.  While they may have originally been all about function (elevated shoes kept feet and hems dry during the wet season), like many everyday accessories they evolved to express wealth, taste and a certain amount of decadence.  Why wear wooden stilts when you could wear velvet wedges embellished with hand made silver lace and glass beads?  Perhaps Venice was the true birthplace of Carrie Bradshaw, and not New York.

Turkish Woman with Slave. Jean-Etienne Liotard 18th Cent.
Chopines were born in Turkey.  Thought to be the footwear of choice for harem girls, they became the fashion for elite women in Renaissance Italy and Spain.  They did serve a practical purpose in keeping the wearer from stepping in debris found in the gutters and streets around town and dirtying their feet and hem, but they also helped to make their owners literally stand heads above the rest.  The shoes could extend the wearers height from 7 inches to a whopping 30 inches, depending on the wearers equilibrial prowess and the height of the average doorway.  The added height also called for extra fabric (fine textiles were luxury items) for the mistress' gown; though the shoes were highly elaborate, fashion dictated that they should never be fully exposed.  The shoes remained hidden jewels, only to be seen by lovers or the help. 

Leather and Silk over Wood.  1600's.  Met Museum.

Velvet and Lace from the Bata Shoe Museum.
In addition to making one taller, Chopines also required assistance from several servants in steadying the wearer and clearing the path ahead.  The higher the shoes, the more servants you required, and this was a direct expression of your wealth for the whole city to witness.  The reduced mobility caused by such impractical foot wear is often compared to Chinese foot binding; done for the sake of beauty and wealth, but also rendering the fashionable woman unable to walk without assistance.  Most women walked with a staggering awkward gait in these shoes; yet some writers of the period maintain that with practice and training, women could not only stroll the city but even dance gracefully while wearing the unique platforms.  I'm sure there were also advances in Kinesiology and Occupation Therapy as a direct result of these shoes running amok amongst the slaves to fashion that populated Venice. 

Pink Brocade and Gold Lace with Silk Tassels.
17th Century.  Museum of Fine Art, Boston.
Let's be honest, it's all really just superficial frivolity; Venetian women of manipulated proportion hobbling around a sinking city in fancy shoes that no one ever got to see.  Yet for a time full of unparalleled invention and thought, it's rather fun, even exciting, to see a little bit of outright vanity and eccentricity tempering the seriously cerebral theories of Humanism.  This is not unfamiliar territory; war in Iraq, the economy in the toilet, but look at Christina Aguilera's Louboutins!  I think we could all stand a little distraction, no matter how trivial, from time to time.  It didn't seem to phase the great minds of the Renaissance, even when they were wearing haute chaussure.  

- Ian

20" leather covered Chopines, for those rainy days in Venice.

15th Century Spanish Chopines of tooled Leather over Cork. 
Spanish Chopines were conical, while Venetian versions were
more artistically carved.

Venetian Chopines of Walnut with Mother of Pearl inlay.

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