Ben Marks of Collectors Weekly says: "Hunter Oatman-Stanford just interviewed Elizabeth Semmelhack of the Bata Shoe Museum, who has spoken to us in the past about high heels and flip flops. This time, we chatted with Elizabeth about chopines, an elevated form of footwear that was popular among aristocratic ladies and courtesans in 16th-century Italy and Spain."
Collectors Weekly: Were chopines limited to upper-class women?
Semmelhack: Originally yes. Though it was somewhat confusing because during the 16th century, dowry inflation grew completely out of control, and it became prohibitively expensive to marry off one’s daughter. Venice was a republic and the ruling men of Venice all had to dress with a confraternal sameness, like when you go to Bay Street in Toronto [the financial district] and all the men are dressed the same. Because of that, women’s dress carried a greater burden of expressing individual family wealth. Marriages were an opportunity to show the wealth not only of the bride’s natal family but also of her nuptial family. By the end of the 16th century, the cost of weddings and all this costume became so prohibitive that wealthy families could only afford to marry one daughter per generation.
This resulted in a surplus of girls and boys who couldn’t find mates. Many girls were sent off to nunneries, and some boys were also sent off to join the church, but both state and church became concerned that men would turn to sodomy in order to satisfy their natural urges. In response, both church and state sanctioned what was called the “honest courtesan,” who behaved as an escort for upper-class men. A courtesan had access to the noble court and moved within that very high social circle. Courtesans were expected to dress like upper-class women, which meant they wore chopines.
But a courtesan was not sequestered at home like true upper-class women: She could walk the streets. When visitors came to Venice and they saw these women clumping around in chopines, they began to assume that chopines were only worn by courtesans, as opposed to the fact that courtesans were aping the dress of wealthy women. Were these honest courtesans upper class? They were of a different class. But they were wearing chopines because of this association, because of the particular social conditions from which the shoes emerged.