Poulaines - a short report.
Given my teenage love of winkle pickers it seemed fitting for part two of the third assignment to research poulaines or, as they were also known, crackowes. Quite a bit of material exists on the web about these strange, almost comical shoes with exaggeratedly pointed toes popular mainly with fashionable young men in 14th and 15th century Europe. For this report I referred mostly to Wikipedia, a ‘site about an archaeological dig on East London’s Prescot Street (which includes interesting information about the area’s medieval history), fashionencyclopedia.com and the Met Museum’s online archive. I distilled the following information:
Poulaines, or crackowes, so named due to their Polish origin, were possibly brought to Western Europe by merchants trading in the Baltic area during the mid-14th century. Another account suggests they were introduced to the area by Polish noblemen visiting their compatriot Queen Anne, the wife of Richard II. Although the exact circumstances of their migration is unclear these distinctive shoes were, in their original, shorter form, worn mostly by members of the aristocracy.
In the aftermath of the Black Plague many Europeans sought solace in increasingly frivolous and extreme fashions of which poulaines were a prime example. Although they rose in popularity rose among fashionable young men from diverse social stratum, these theatrical items of footwear were impractical and generally marked their owners as a men of leisure with little need to attend to everyday tasks. The name poulaine refers to the shoe’s extended toe. In their 14th and 15th century incarnations poulaines could reach 24 inches past the wearer's own feet which, according to some accounts, occasionally forced him to attach the tips to lengths of chain tied to his knees in order to walk without falling over. Evidence of this bizarre custom is unclear though and has been attributed mainly to a widely quoted passage from John Stow's 1598 Survey of London, which states:
"In Distar Lane, on the North side thereof, is the Cordwainers or Shoemaker's Hall, which company were made a brotherhood or fraternity in the 11th of Henry IV. Of these Cordwayners I read, that since the fifth of Richard II. (when he took to wife Anne, daughter to Veselaus, King of Boheme), by her example the English people had used piked shoes, tied to their knees with silken laces, or chains of silver or gilt, wherefore in the fourth of Edward IV. it was ordained and proclaimed, that beaks of shoone and boots, should not pass the length of two inches, upon pain of cursing by the clergy, and by Parliament to pay 20 shillings for every pair. And every cordwainer that shod any man or woman on the Sunday, to pay 30 shillings."
Whatever their length men often stuffed the toes of their poulaines with moss or wool to define their shape. The clearly phallic look of these stuffed toes was very much the point and one blog goes so far as to suggest that it was common practice for men to paint them the colour of flesh to drive the sexual connotation home (excuse the convoluted pun). As John Stow suggests such connotations were noted by the Church, which tried to ban poulaines on the grounds of their immorality. Later attempts to censure them were made in the name of preserving class distinctions whereby commoners were forbidden from wearing longer poulaines. However ridiculous these censorious attitudes may seem today they are not too dissimilar from moral objections to later fashion inventions like the miniskirt and punk’s appropriation of explicit and underground imagery. Unlike these the original poulaine did not withstand the test of time and waned in popularity by the late 15th Century, to be replaced by a brief fad for wide shoes nicknamed "bear paws". It could be argued though, that the poulaine has lived on via its contemporary version the winkle picker (see above), which remained popular among various subcultures throughout the 20th century and is still worn today.
Links of interest
http://www.mercwars.com/longtoe.shtml (also has information on recreating medieval clothes)
http://www.virtue.to/articles/poulaines.html (a guide to making your own poulaines)
For further images see links at the beginning of my report.