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The European clog – a centuries-old design

Exploring this historic wooden shoe which still has a strong following within the footwear purchasing community.

by Stuart Morgan

A ‘clog’ is a variety of footwear made in part or entirely from wood. While the carved form may be associated with the culture of the Netherlands, they can be found worldwide. Although the design may have varied from one country to another, each style of clog often remained unchanged for centuries.

Whole foot clogs being worn in 1883

The history of the clog in Europe may stretch back for thousands of years – hardly surprising considering the easy accessibility of its basic material. Equally unsurprising is the fact that wooden shoes have long been associated with the poorer parts of society, which needed cheap and very durable footwear. Wooden shoes were worn by both sexes who needed protective footwear while toiling in the fields, down mines and in some factories, but could not afford the sturdy boots that the ‘well heeled’ people bought.

The production of wooden shoes was taken seriously – the world’s first clog maker’s guild was established in the Netherlands in 1570, with the first English association being founded during the following century.

Varying designs

Clogs were made in three main styles: one-piece complete wooden shoes, clogs with wooden soles and a leather or textile upper, and overshoes.

One-piece wooden shoes are made by hollowing out a piece of solid wood to make a combined upper and lower. Two main variants can be seen: ‘whole foot clogs’, where the wooden upper covers the entire foot close to the ankle (such as in the well-known Dutch ‘Klomp’ shoe), and ‘half open clogs’, in which the wooden upper extends over the toes or slightly further – for instance, in the Italian ‘Zoccolo’ or Belgian and French ‘Sabot’. Klompen (the plural form of ‘Klomp’) may have a carefully placed ‘ease’ – the space left around the foot – to allow the foot to bend and the heel to lift slightly within the shoe (and permitting easy removal).

© | Sabine Thielemann

Half open clogs may have additional covering or securing straps of fabric or leather

As the name suggests, wooden-soled clogs are made with wood only on the sole. This style of shoe is available with complete uppers (made from leather or similar material), an example of which is the ‘British clog’, which we will explore in this article. When used as protective footwear, these may also feature steel toecaps and/or steel reinforcing inserts in the undersides of the soles. Another variety is the open sandal-type of footwear, in the style of the Japanese ‘Geta’ (see the article ‘The oldest shoe design in the world?’).

Overshoes are wooden soles with straps designed to be worn over other footwear for protection.

The styling of the upper determines how the clogs can be worn. Out of necessity, whole foot clogs must fit closely and are secured by the wearer curling his or her toes. Half open clogs can be kept on the foot either by curling the toes or may have additional covering or securing straps of fabric or leather. By contrast, wooden-soled clogs are fastened by laces or buckles positioned on the welt of the upper, allowing the toes to be relaxed. Some of the simple sandal types, particularly toe peg styles, rely on the grip between the big toe and its neighbour.

An example – the British clog

The uppers of a wooden-soled British clog are typically made from leather. Such footwear became popular in Britain during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th to 19th centuries, when industrial workers needed cheap yet durable shoes. The wearing of clogs in Britain – for both men and women – was particularly popular between the 1840s and 1920s and, although traditionally associated with the industrial north of England, more clogs were reportedly worn in the London fish docks and fruit markets, the Kent coalfields and other locations in the south than in the northern industrial towns. On occasions, clogs were provided as part of poor relief – in 1912, the Blackburn Weekly Telegraph reported a number of people being given gifts of clogs. Although most British clog makers were to be found in the north county of Lancashire, these craftsmen were also to be found in other parts of the British Isles and Ireland.

Traditional production of British Clogs (which may have been used in mediaeval times) commenced with travelling woodsmen (in some areas called ‘bodgers’) buying a number of trees which they felled. Alder, beech, birch, sycamore and willow were commonly chosen, as these woods resisted splitting. Aspen – another wood which appears to have been commonly used for making clogs in mediaeval England – is said to have been specifically banned by Henry V (1386-1422) in the making of wooden shoes in order to preserve the stock for manufacturing arrows. Anyone caught flouting the law was subject to a £5 fine – a serious risk for the day.

The timber was cut into blocks of green wood (which was easier to work than seasoned timber) that were roughly shaped with an adze and stock knife. A deep notch cut to indicate the meeting of the sole and heel. The blocks were then usually loosely stacked to allow air to circulate and they were seasoned for a number of months.

These seasoned blocks were then sold to a ‘master clogger’ who would complete the work on the dry wood. Stock knives were again utilised for shaping, with the sole being finished to a smooth state by the use of rasps and short-bladed knives. As clogs cannot flex under the ball of the foot, most of them feature an upward curve at the bottom of the toe (known as the ‘cast’) to allow the foot to roll forward.

The finished shoes were allowed to completely dry out, after which they were could be painted with patterns and designs. Some villages had traditional decoration, ensuring a product uniquely from a specific area.

Traditional British clog uppers were made from leather which was cut using card or metal patterns. The vamp, quarters and heel stiffener were stitched together, after which eyelets or fastenings were attached. The uppers were stretched over a solid straight last, using lasting pincers and a hot half-round bottom glazer tool to heat and soften the leather. Once the upper had cooled and was set to shape, it was removed from the last and tacked onto the soles. When sprung lasts were introduced during the 20th century, the necessity of transferring the upper from last to sole was removed.

Courtesy of Phil Howard Clogs

A wooden-soled British clog with a leather upper

The joint between upper and sole was normally covered by a narrow strip of leather (the welt) through which was nailed brass or steel clog welt tacks. Most clogs were then finished with a strip of brass or steel to protect the toe.

Continuing to sell

Over the centuries, improvements in manufacturing techniques have often sounded the death knell for age-old methods and the resulting goods. The same could have been said for the wooden shoe, but the style tenaciously hung on to existence. While the Industrial Age and mass production introduced by the invention of machinery soon favoured leather and synthetic footwear over clogs, they continued to be worn – even as combat gear (called ‘sabotines’) by some First World War soldiers.

In 1926, ‘Sand clogs’ appeared in New York stores and were described by fashion industry trade journal Women’s Wear Daily as ‘one of the most interesting innovations of the season’. Sand clogs featured wooden soles painted in bright colours and were held onto the foot by two broad leather straps painted with either gold or silver gilt.

While the outbreak of World War II introduced rationing of many materials, wood was not one of them. This led to a plethora of novel clog designs aimed at women who still wanted something fun to wear without having to use a clothing coupon.

Once the world moved into the post-war era, clogs fell out of favour, as fashion tastes looked for more delicate and feminine styles. Nevertheless, the ‘Beach clog’ – generally a simple one-inch wooden sole fastened by a leather strap – was sold as holiday wear throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s.

The term ‘clogs’ gradually began to be used to describe any shoe or sandal with a platform or wedge sole, whether or not it was made from wood. In 1978, moulded plastic clogs made to look like wood – nicknamed ‘disco slides’ – hit the market. The 1990s saw Karl Lagerfeld designing clogs for Chanel and Thierry Mugler producing towering wooden wedge shoes. Dior premiered clogs in its autumn/winter 2018 collection and other companies quickly followed suit. Today, some types of clogs are considered to be desirable fashion wear.

Even traditional Klompen are being made and worn in the Netherlands, with some three million pairs produced each year. A large percentage of these clogs are destined to be tourist souvenirs. However, some Dutch farmers and market gardeners still wear them for everyday use.

Although clogs have often been reviled, they have fallen in and out of style for almost a century while never actually disappearing. They have continued to be both worn and loved by an impressive number of devotees.

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Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 42 of the September 2020 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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