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Espadrilles – no longer the 'poor man's shoes'

Still made from natural plant materials, espadrilles have kept their popularity for centuries.

by Stuart Morgan

Image © Gorbelabda |

Once the shoe for the poor of the land, espadrilles have in recent decades become a fashion item. Thousands of varieties can be found, ranging from inexpensive ‘bargain’ brands to high-priced ‘designer’ styles retailing at £750 ($1,135) or more.

Espadrilles originated in the mountainous Pyrenean region of France and Spain, the earliest examples being made at least by the 13th century. In fact, the Archaeological museum of Granada, Spain, possesses espadrille-type shoes that were discovered in a cave in the southern province of Córdoba, which are said to be thousands of years old.

Rope-based shoes, in which the footbed was made of coils of natural fibres, were being worn during the 13th century by the Spanish King of Aragons’ soldiers. This type of footwear was traditionally made from materials available in the locality. Uppers were often cut from fabric woven from flax, and pitch was sometimes used to protect the underneath of the flexible sole, that was made of rope. It is the use of rope that made the espadrille unique and provided its name – the word ‘espadrille’ is French and is derived from ‘esparto’, a wiry grass found near the Mediterranean that was favoured by rope makers.

In the 1900s, demand grew from miners for a modified style of espadrille. Wet mines created a problem, because the espadrille’s jute rope sole was not suitable for wet conditions. The solution was to add a rubber sole to provide increased grip – an adaptation that has continued to the present day.

Modern espadrilles

Image © Studioportosabbia |

Flat espadrilles, showing the typical soling affixed to the rope footbed

While in times past espadrilles were worn by both men and women, modern styles are mainly designed for women. Still manufactured in southern Europe and some other parts of the world (although by far fewer specialised factories than there once were), many espadrilles are now made in Asia.

Today, jute (or less commonly, hemp) – made into a rope or braid – is commonly used for the soling of espadrilles. Production is concentrated mostly in India and Bangladesh. It is claimed that around 90 per cent of the world’s total production of complete espadrilles, as well as jute soles, are from Bangladesh. A number of shoemakers in France, Italy and Spain import jute soles from Bangladesh to finish espadrilles, and complete espadrilles are also assembled in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Columbia, Paraguay and Venezuela using Bangladeshi jute.

Image © Thamizhpparithi Maari

Jute rope prior to shoemaking

Jute fibre is derived from the stem and the outer skin (the ‘ribbon’) of the jute plant. The fibres are first extracted by the ‘retting’ process, in which bundles of jute stems or ribbons are immersed in slow-running water. After retting, workers scrape off the non-fibrous matter (called ‘stripping’) and, in the case of stem retting, the fibres are pulled from within the jute stem.

Jute soles typically incorporate rubber solings for durability. Uppers may be made from nearly any material, with open or closed toes and open or closed backs. They can be slip-on styles or laced to the ankle.

Image © Auyon

Drying jute fibres

The typical production of a modern espadrille begins with the fibres used being formed into a braid. This is then rolled into the general shape of the sole, heated and compressed, bonded to a thin rubber outsole and stitched in various places in order to maintain the correct shape. The upper components are cut from patterns and assembled, after which they are stitched to the soles.

Birth of the wedge espadrille


Lauren Bacall wore espadrilles in the movie ‘Key Largo’

For hundreds of years, Espadrilles were generally flat, but that changed in 1970 when French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent met footwear manufacturer Lorenzo Castañer at a trade fair in Paris in the early 1970s. For some time, Mr Saint Laurent had been searching in vain for someone to make him a wedge espadrille. The Castañer company quickly interpreted the designer’s vision, and the wedge espadrilles proved to be an instant success. This style requires a rope-covered wedge – often made of such materials as solid cork, polystyrene, polyurethane (PU) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

As often happens, celebrity use drives sales. Espadrilles became fashionable in the USA in the 1940s and the 1950s. Famous people such as screen star Grace Kelly, US president John F Kennedy, author Ernest Hemingway and artist Pablo Picasso helped to turn the once peasant footwear into a popular accessory, and actress Lauren Bacall wore ankle-laced espadrilles in the movie ‘Key Largo’. The popularity of espadrilles was boosted in the USA during the 1980s when actor Don Johnson wore them while filming the TV show ‘Miami Vice’.

Today, there is a proliferation of companies offering this unique style of footwear in hundreds (if not thousands) of styles and colour schemes. A brief online search reveals flats, wedges, sandals, slip-ons and fully enclosed shoes. The choice of different uppers is impressive. There are vividly bright or pastel shades, animal and patterned prints, glitter finishes, uppers in canvas – sometimes with mesh panels – leather or lace, with designs embellished by trims, studs and jewels. Fastening systems include straps securing over the foot, slingbacks, touch-and-close tapes and laces.

With all this effort being expended to create so much selection, one thing is clear – the future for the espadrille appears bright.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 42 of the March 2015 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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