March 2009

Chopine



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Chopine
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This pair of shoes is an exquisite example of a very rare type of Renaissance shoe called a chopine and is very special to the Bata Shoe Museum. The chopine is an elevating, platform, slip-on shoe that was popularized in Venice in the late 1500s and it was worn by women of great wealth. Later as the fashion declined, high level courtesans adopted the style to take advantage of the added height, which made them more visible and attractive to their clients.

The chopine had no true function, but to draw attention to the wearer. It was to elevate wealthy women so that they were the most visible points of attention at special events and functions, thereby displaying a woman’s charms as well as her family’s wealth and prestige. They were commonly from 5 to 9 inches in height but the most outrageous examples reached the alarming height of three feet. As you can imagine even the most conservative examples were a challenge for navigation, and so it was not uncommon to see women being assisted while wearing them; sometimes two servants were needed just to help her move through a room. This draws a funny and awkward mental image for us as contemporary researchers; the effect at the time however, was very memorable and was often repeated and copied.

The chopine was a short-lived style, developed first in Spain, then moving with trade to Italy, where its greatest fame occurred around the turn of the 16th century in Venice. The style is closely related to the wooden stilt sandals called zoccoli worn earlier in Italy and the qab qabs worn in Turkey and the Near East.

The chopine had some currency throughout Western Europe but nowhere reached the fascination and interest it held for the Venetians. In faraway England, in the late 1590s, it was familiar enough that Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in a moment of casual conversation, turns to a young actor who had previously played women’s roles, to say “B’yr lady, your ladyship is nearer to heaven than when I saw you last, by the altitude of a chopine”. It’s a way of noting that the boy has had a growth spurt since Hamlet last saw him perform, and perhaps would no longer be able to play women’s roles.

This pair of chopines is in surprisingly excellent condition considering that it was made and worn sometime between 1580 and 1620. Each shoe is carved from a solid piece of wood, probably alder, that has been hollowed somewhat to make the shoes lighter in weight. Since the chopine is such a large shoe, it provides a grand base for decoration with luxurious fabrics and ornaments. These in turn advertise a family’s wealth and position. This pair is covered in gold velvet, and is decorated at the base and at the toe with delicate, silver Maltese lace (which is now very tarnished) called “reticella”. Each shoe also features silver tacks and long silk tassels. The leather insole of each chopine has been tooled with a concentric square design, so that the viewer sees every surface holding a more luxurious decoration than the last.

A quick look back at the footwear fashion trends of the 20th century tells us that the desire to elevate oneself on a pedestal was not left behind in the 17th century. In fact, the platform shoes of the 1940s, 1970s and late 1990s illustrate that the demand for height is ever present in women’s fashion and we’re sure to see it again, perhaps at a time when the economy is so good that we can decorate the platforms with luxurious silks and velvets, just as the Venetians did.

 


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