|Shoe last with leg wrappings and shoe, China, 19th century. Plaster cast of a foot for making shoes, with cotton and silk leg wrappings. Cantonese-style lotus shoe of rose silk with blue trim and heel pull, with appliqué and embroidery on upturned toe. 4.25 inches in length. PM 99-12-60/53793.|
The tiny foot and the mincing step have appeared as themes throughout the history of shoe fashion, as evidenced by the pervasive and persistent Cinderella story. Distorting the foot to achieve the tiny profile has not been limited to Chinese foot-binding; high heels have much the same effect. Nowhere, however, was this desire more fervently pursued than in China. The origins of foot-binding are not known. The earliest examples of shoes for bound feet came from several twelfth-century tombs, and it is generally thought that the practice developed gradually during the eleventh century. For much of its history the practice was confined to upper-class Han Chinese women, but during the nineteenth century the practice became much more widespread, ironically just as the ruling dynasty—Qing or Manchus, who did not bind their feet—was trying to ban it.
Known in China as arched shoes, embroidered slippers, and gilded lilies, the modern English term for these shoes is lotus shoe. The ideal lotus foot was 3 inches long, but the average length of lotus shoes in Western collections is 5 to 5 1/2 inches. The length of the shoe, however, does not accurately portray the length of the foot. The lotus shoe, combined with leg wrappings, was designed to create an illusion of smallness. To be sure, foot-binding reduced the length of the foot by rearranging its bones and tissue, but it could not remove the mass or volume of the foot. The volume had to be accommodated, and smallness could be interpreted in a variety of ways—the short profile, the narrow instep, the slim ankle. Those women who fell short of the ideal of the 3-inch "golden lotus" resorted to a variety of techniques to give the illusion of tiny feet. For example, lifts inserted into the heel of the shoe raised the heel above the back of the shoe to be hidden by wrappings or hemlines; a heel or an arched sole shortened the profile; and a high cuff on a shoe (bootee) gave the impression of a foot the width of the ankle.