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The mule – an ancient shoe with a modern twist

Investigating the history of this popular footwear, which moved out of the boudoir and onto the high street.

by Stuart Morgan

Image © heinteh |

The ‘mule’ is an easily-recognised style of shoe, as it has no constraint – such as a strap – around the wearer’s heel. This design feature can be traced back through history, even as far as Ancient Rome where ‘mulleus calceus’ was a term used to describe the red or purple shoe worn by some important senators and magistrates.

Examples of this style could later be found in Turkey, Egypt (where they were depicted on 8th century gravestones) and throughout western Europe, although evidence suggests that they were not overly popular in the latter region until the 16th century. Queen Henrietta Maria (1609-1669), wife of English monarch Charles I, chose to wear an embroidered pair of mules, and this no doubt influenced many women of her time.

Shoemuseum Lausanne

Reconstruction of a 16th century chopine-style mule

While all having the basic lack of heel constraint, the style of the mule has evolved over time. Fifteenth century versions from Venice resembled highly-platformed ‘chopines’. In these early days, a variety of toe shapes were used, including forked, round and square, and heel heights ranged from 41 mm (15⁄8 inches) to 64 mm (21⁄2 inches). From 1550 to around 1700, mules were decorated with fine embroidery.

Mules were generally regarded as slippers for wear in the bedroom or boudoir, rather than in the street. This was because they often slipped off and so were difficult to walk in. In the early 1700s, they were being worn by both men and women and from the 1720s to the end of the century, mules were the most popular indoor slipper donned as a sign of ‘casual luxury’.

Northampton Museum and Art Gallery

Men's pink, yellow, silver and cream ‘bizarre’ silk brocade mule slippers c1710

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Early 18th century embroidered mules made from silk, linen and leather

For much of the 19th century, Iranian and Turkish mules were made with leather, metal thread, silk, velvet and wood. Shoemakers in India used buffalo, cow or goat hide, as well as brocade, cotton fibre, fur, reeds and grass, silk, velvets and wool. As with European examples, mules in India were often richly embroidered and embellished with appliqué and tassels.

In and out of favour

Fashions come and go, of course, and at the beginning of the 1800s mules went out of style in the West. However, within a few decades, their popularity grew once again and even started to appear in what would in time become major works of art. For example, in modernist painter Édouard Manet’s 1863 work entitled ‘Olympia’, the model is shown wearing mules.

While heeled examples were regularly worn by both men and women throughout the 18th century, such higher-heeled styles were less frequently chosen by men by the 1850s. During the late 1880s, a very popular version of the mule in England was the ‘Albert’ – named after Queen Victoria’s husband. This ‘evening’ slipper, was often made from velvet with leather soles and featured a ‘grosgrain’ fabric bow, or even the wearer’s initials embroidered in gold. After 1885, the general use of large buckles and elaborate trims fell out of fashion, and mules became more lightly decorated low-heeled leather and felt shoes.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Exotically-styled French silk and metal mules c1914

While World War II was raging, material shortages led to mules being made of linoleum, oilcloth, felt, and compounds of bark, raffia, rattan or synthetic hemp. In the 1950s, mules were produced in the newly-available plastic materials and, during this decade, Hollywood stars including Joan Fontaine and Jane Russell wore mules in both their films and daily lives. Marilyn Monroe also wore them in her movie ‘The Seven Year Itch’. Their popularity grew hand in hand with that of stiletto heels, as mules offered height in the heel while allowing the wearer to be more comfortable.

Innovation to the rescue

As mules emerged out of the bedroom and onto the streets, women began to complain that the shoes were hard to keep on. Beth Levine – known as ‘America’s First Lady of Shoe Design’ – responded to this complaint by creating the ‘Springolator’ in 1956. This used an elastic insole strip to keep the footwear securely in place, despite the lack of any straps at the side or back of the shoe. It was designed to create tension between the shoe and the bottom of the foot and, as well as keeping the shoe on the foot, Levine’s creation eliminated the clacking noise made by most mules when the wearer was walking in them.

During the following decade, mules had angular shapes and pointy toes – very fitting for the ‘swinging sixties’ – and in the 1980s, they were colourful and highly accessorised with faux gemstones. During the eighties, Spanish designer Manolo Blahnik was credited for the style’s resurgence, with his ‘Maysale’ mule quickly gaining popularity following its launch.

After another lull, mules regained their favoured status toward the end of the nineties, and since the start of the new millennium, many celebrities and models – including Gigi Hadid and Beyoncé – have been seen wearing different versions of mules. While the shoe has had its ups and downs since the turn of the new millennium, Elle magazine referred to mules as ‘the shoe of 2017’.

Modern footwear designers take commissions to produce mules very seriously. The creativity involved has resulted in styles that vary significantly by heel height – ranging from flat to very high, including stilettos, blocks and wedges – as well as different toe shapes and upper materials. In addition to reasonably plain, ‘classic’ examples, other mules are resplendent in exuberant trim levels, sporting studs, feathers, gemstones and other eye-catching decoration.

Lisa Taylor

‘Clog mules’

Technically, clogs and mules are slightly different. They both have the same backless shape providing an effortless way to don the shoe but, whereas clogs tend to have a thicker sole and platform that follows the natural shape of the foot, mules generally have no platform base (although they are, as previously mentioned, available in a variety of heel heights). Nevertheless, in modern marketing it is common to find footwear described as ‘clog mules’ and this does not appear to cause any problem for consumers who buy them.

Alongside their applications as fashionable and casual footwear, mules can also be found in the workplace – for example, on the feet of food preparation personnel. Mules are also generally acceptable under office dress codes because the wearer’s toes are covered.

Today, an online search for ‘mules’ produces over two billion results, which is a clear indicator that this footwear style is as popular as ever.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 28 of the May 2022 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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