In this series, I will explore the forgotten past of fashion trends you will probably be grateful you never had to wear. From chopines to houppelandes to hobble skirts, “Extinct Fashion Trends” will be an archaeological dig into fashion’s strange, wondrous, and at times highly impractical past. Today’s topic: chopines.
List of things that flourished in Renaissance Italy: philosophy, art, science, platform shoes. Seriously, though. While Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel, women were walking around in another great architectural feat: chopines. As if we Americans weren’t jealous enough of the boundless grace and poise of European women, they actually wore these. Yeah, you thought Marlene Dietrich pioneered the platform in the 1930s? Think again. Chopines were popular among Italian women in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries and were not, as many people think, simply a way to keep their dresses out of the mud.
Rather, chopines were a status symbol—the higher the platform, the higher the status of the wearer. (This detail, at least, remained in effect through the nineties as the Spice Girls ruled the world with nothing but girl power and an endless supply of towering lucite platforms.) But even the Spice Girls never reached the heights of some of these high-class acrobats socialites, whom towered above the plebeians in chopines up to twenty inches high. Even Shakespeare knew it was ridiculous, joking about “the altitude of a chopine” in Hamlet. Basically, these families just wanted to show off the fact that they could afford twenty extra inches of textile for their women’s garments. Classy, Venice.
As for where the chopine originated, you need to look to classic Greek and Roman culture. Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, told Collector’s Weekly that she traced the wearing of platform shoes back to Greece, finding a long tradition of the style in antiquity. “In fact, some images of Aphrodite show her in excessively high platforms,” she said. “It remains unclear to me whether these images of Aphrodite in really high platforms were simply an artistic expression or if they reflect some kind of lived practice.” But for direct influence, Europeans were looking East. The chopine style traveled from the Middle East to the Moors and then over to the Italians.
As for the movement, upper-class Venetian women didn’t require much, as they were sequestered and hidden for most of the year. “Sometimes these women were put out like parade floats, mounted on very high chopines in splendid dresses,” Semmelhack said. “Their job was to convey the wealth of their families as well as the larger affluence of Venice.” In The Politics of Courtly Dancing in Early Modern England, scholar Howard Skiles points out that chopines caused women (when they were let out) to have an unstable and inelegant gait. Luckily, they could just grab a couple of servants to help them promenade around. Ain’t history grand?
Like many tacky platforms of today, Italian chopines were generally made out of wood, while the Spanish style was usually made of cork. And if you’re going to wear something as a status symbol, you best make it over-the-top, so most fancy chopines were adorned with metal, leather, brocade, jewels, or velvet. For the really fancy ladies, probably all of the above.
If you want to check out a pair of chopines today, you can do so at the Brooklyn Museum of Fine Arts, The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, The Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Casa Davazanti in Florence, Musee Cluny in Paris, and several others across Europe.