Guilty Pleasure: A Brief History of High Heels and Other Shoes

working woman, high heels, pumps

The right shoes can trigger a much needed mood shift on a blah day. Slide into animal print pumps to call forth a little attitude and confidence. Or lace up your favorite running shoes to channel your inner warrior.

The shoes in your collection can be as varied as the roles you play from day-to-day. And they continue to evolve… to carry you into those roles.

Here’s a quick look at a few iconic shoe trends: some of fashion’s biggest steps—and missteps.


red stillettos, plastic footwear

High Heels

Comfort apparently isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, at least when you consider the history of high heels. Turns out that men (yes, men) and women wore a lot of uncomfortable high heels over the centuries (originally designed to help horse riders and warriors keep themselves in the saddle). But it wasn’t until the 1940s and especially the 1950s that lightweight plastics began making them lighter, taller, and… almost comfortable. Since then, head-turning high heels like the stiletto have been popular with movie stars and the masses alike.


platform sandals, recycled plastic footwear

Sky-High Platform Shoes

Used over the centuries to increase stature (like high heels) or to avoid muck in streets, platform shoes became wildly fashionable in the late 60s and 70s, particularly on the disco floor and the feet of glam rockers (and later 80s hair bands). Originally made of wood or cork, they mostly transitioned to lightweight, water resistant polyurethane foam plastic that made them easier to walk in. Platform shoes continued to help pop stars and their fans feel like they were taller than they actually were for the better part of the 90s. The latest? Clear plastic platform/high heel combos, some eight inches tall.


running shoes, couple running

High-Performance Sneakers (Running Shoes Started It All)

Then there’s the running shoe. While sneakers have been around since the late 1800s, innovations in running shoes sparked massive advances. Starting in the 1970s, new waffle soles made of polyurethane plastics (first created in an actual waffle iron) gave runners an alternative to racing shoes with scary metal spikes. This innovation coincided with the jogging craze… and running shoe sales soared.

Since then all sorts of innovations, most using combos of various plastics (e.g., nylon) and synthetic rubbers/plastics (e.g., ethylene vinyl acetate/EVA) have elevated the running scene by making shoes more comfortable, longer lasting, and lightweight. That’s why today some shoes weigh just a few ounces and feel more like socks, not the heavy leather shoes of oldie times. Now you know why you feel like you’re running on air… Similar technologies have advanced other sport shoes, as well—there are more than 3,000 models! Including platform sneakers (I mean, really?).


plastic footwear, jelly sandals

Jelly Sandals

Who knew that a little bit of PVC plastic, a few bright colors, and sometimes a touch of glitter could almost single-handedly define a generation of kids? But Jelly sandals, or “jellies” to most of the young 80s crowd, did just about that. They were wonderfully comfy, always felt like summer, and made us believe we were headed to the pool or beach. Oh, and they’re currently making a comeback. Along with their newer counterpart…


foam clogs, crocs, recycled plastic footwear

Foam Clogs

Has any footwear style ever been so popular and yet so … unpopular? Love ‘em or don’t love ‘em, the leading brand of these comfy slip-ons has sold more than 300 million pairs in 90+ countries and inspired numerous knock offs. Made from EVA foam plastic and originally designed as a boat shoe, they’re worn by celebrity chefs, doctors, kids… anyone who wants comfortable, breathable footwear. Even former President George W. Bush wore them while in office… in public…with socks. Hmmm. More recently they’ve graced runways (plastic platforms anyone?), attracted celebrity endorsements, and launched a comeback marketing blitz.


running shoes, recycled plastic footwear

Shoes Made from Recycled Materials

OK, here we are in the 21st century, where our lives are faster… and greener. Shoes made from recycled materials (plastics!) are trending, demonstrating that “fashion-forward” can play nice with “eco-conscious.” Multiple brands today create myriad fashionable or athletic shoes from recycled plastics: custom 3-D printed athletic shoes, everyday flats made from bottles, hi-tech trainers, and more. Including sneakers made with plastics retrieved from ocean litter. That’s a great step forward. (Get it?)

Foot fashion will continue to evolve to meet ever changing roles and desires. Despite fleeting trends, one constant likely will remain: the contribution of plastics in making shoes lighter, longer lasting, more comfortable and fashionable… while contributing to sustainability.