Origin of the Trend: Gladiator Sandals

Be a fashion warrior this spring: invest in a pair of gladiator sandals to show off your legs and your end-of-sock-weather pedicures. There’s nothing better than warm-weather shoes that let your feet breathe without threatening to abandon you as you climb the Ansin building staircase or strut across Tremont Street with three seconds remaining on the crosswalk countdown clock, rendering gladiator sandals the perfect spring option.

Although this season’s styles are constructed from a variety of fabrics, the original gladiator sandals of ancient Rome, according to Roman-Colosseum.info, were “predominantly leather.” The shoes were made from animal hide, with the toughest leather used for the soles and the softer pieces for the straps and inner soles. Sandals for gladiators, for whom the footwear was named, were constructed from the highest quality leather so their feet wouldn’t get covered in blood-soaked sand of the battle arena floors. All other Romans wore cheaper versions of the shoe “studded with hobnails” whenever they were indoors, because no one walked around barefoot for fear of looking impoverished–even if they were. They ancient Romans had the priorities of a teenaged American girl.

When the gladiator sandal arrived in 1983 as part of the summer’s ancient-inspired, strappy shoe trend the St. Joseph News-Press said, “The Romans can take credit for elevating the sandal to a level of high art, (the deputy director of the Italian Shoe Center) notes. Roman sandals were designed by prominent artists of the period, and because they were such precious creations, were often buried with the owner.” Again, the priorities thing. If only the ancient Romans could see Benoit Meleard’s shoes, they’d go crazy.

Because the centuries following the era of ancient Romans emphasized luxury and conservative dress, the flesh-baring sandals were not again appropriate footwear until the late 1960s. Leave it to the hippies to resurrect a shoe characterized by braids, straps and, ironically, dead animal skin. According to the Lodi News-Sentinel, reporting from the New York for American Designer Showings in January of 1968, “on the fun side” of “comfortable” footwear fashion ”were sandals with laces to wrap around the leg to the knee. A gladiator influence was apparent in sandals with chunky chains starting at toes and ending at knees–held there by a leather strap dyed gold or silver.” Though chains don’t scream “fun side” to me, Rihanna may disagree.

The Windsor Star, reporting from Fall Fashion Week in August of 1970, confirmed the solid reemergence of the shoe as a warm-weather trend: “Only the gladiator sandals on the streets of Rome looked really new, but it was for summer, not the cold seasons ahead.” Pantelis Melissinos Art fashioned a gladiator sandal called the “Jackie Onassis,” emphasizing the decade’s widespread adoration of the shoe.

Having survived the 80s, the gladiator sandal was embraced by Gianni Versace’s spring 1993 collection which, according to The Telegraph, was “remarkable for its unabashed borrowing of styles from the underworld of sado-masochism. Models wore wool crepe dresses topped with bodice-harnesses of crossed, stitched belts, or studded leather skirts and gladiator sandals.” The designer said his line “showed a similar collection in Dallas 15 years” before, much to the disgust of prudish audience members. I like to think the sexual violence associated currently associated with gladiator sandals would impress ancient Romans: that whole let’s-watch-humans-get-slaughtered-for-entertainment thing screams of S&M, so I imagine bondage-inspired clothing would excite them.

About ten years later, Calvin Klein incorporated the shoe into its spring/summer 2002 collection, according toNYDailyNews.com, by accessorizing ”nearly all the outfits . . . with flat gladiator sandals in leather, linen or satin.” These uncommon fabric choices were the first of many alterations made in the past decade, decreasing the tough-and-dirty tone of the sandal. The gladiator sandal of 2005, according to The New York Times was ”propped on cork wedges or dainty court heels–airy alternatives to summer flip-flops.” Zippers, metallic finishes, cuffs and high heels distinguished 2008′s versions, Fashion-Era.com says.

This season’s gladiator sandals have distanced themselves even further from the original shoe: Matalan offers floral-fabric styles, Tamaris uses green leather, Giambattista Valli has metal-cuffed designs and a Salvatore Ferragamo version is made of sued ties. Spring 2011 likes unconventional, colorful gladiator sandals; feminine, futuristic or a slight reinterpretation of the classic, the shoe can accompany any outfit.

Published at The Lion, The Stitch, and The Wardrobe on April 27, 2011.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s