If the Shoe Fits
The NHMLA Ethnology Collections have shoes from around the world
The NHMLA Ethnology Collections have shoes from around the world
Come behind the scenes into the Ethnology Collections at NHMLA, dedicated to the comparative study of human cultures. Part of the Anthropology Department (the study of humanity), this collection has over 33,000 cultural objects from around the world. There are tools, ornaments, baby carriers, weapons, cooking utensils, and – you guessed it – shoes!
The vast array of shoes represents different cultures and time periods and showcases a wide variety of materials. Below is a glimpse into this amazing collection featuring 14 very different pairs of shoes.
East African Sandals
These sandals collected in East Africa were probably introduced there by way of trade from India. Afro-Asian trade flourished across the Indian Ocean long before Vasco da Gama made his trip around the Cape of Good Hope to find a path to India for the Europeans in 1497. These sandals date to circa 1840 and were donated to the museum in 1920.
These beautifully lacquered Japanese geta (sandals) came to the museum in 1930. They are meant for a child to wear, and based on their rectangular shape, they were probably intended for a young boy, since the geta that girls wear generally have a more rounded toe. The metal ornament on the bottom is placed there to cover the knot made to hold the straps in place, but it probably also adds to the renowned sound getas make; a source of nostalgia for many older Japanese.
These tall sandals from Japan, described as “storm shoes,” have an added leather cover over the toes and extra height to keep the feet dry. They are an adaptation of the Japanese geta, or sandals worn with traditional Japanese clothing.
According to an Australian Aboriginal tradition, the Kurdaitcha, or ritual executioner, would wear these shoes when hunting his victim. This tradition, not practiced since turn of the 20th century, is rooted in the Aboriginal belief that death is never natural and instead results from a curse or the actions of spirits influenced by an enemy. If the dying individual did not name their suspected killer, perceived signs would eventually point others to the guilty party. A council of old men from the same group would then meet to decide whether a Kurdaitcha should be named to avenge the individual’s death.
The shoes were worn only after performing a secret ritual and are made of emu feathers mixed with human blood and covered in a woven net of human hair. They create oval-shaped tracks that would disguise the identity of the Kurdaitcha and make it impossible to know which direction he was travelling. Just seeing the oval-shaped tracks was enough to terrify large groups of people.
These shoes, collected circa 1877, were donated to the museum in 1936 and spent some time on display in the former permanent exhibit, The Art of the Pacific Islands (circa 1966-1985).
Mother of Pearl Sandals
These old Turkish shoes are missing the straps that would’ve stretched over the arches of the feet. According to the description provided when the shoes were donated to the museum in 1941, “ladies who are rich enough to be idle and need not walk, prop their feet on these.” They are made of wood with designs inlaid with mother-of-pearl.
These Arapaho (Inunaina) moccasins date to the late 1800s. Their decorations include both quillwork and beading with dangling horsehair held in metal clasps.
Quillwork is a fascinating method of adorning an item using the quills of porcupines. The quills are naturally pale yellow or white but can be readily dyed a variety of colors using plant-based dyes and eventually synthetic aniline dyes once they became available through trade. Prior to the introduction of glass beads with the arrival of Europeans, quillwork was the primary decorative technique used by Native Americans who lived near the natural habitats of porcupines.
Salmon Skin Winter Shoes
These shoes are made of fish skin! Specifically, they are “salmon skin winter shoes” made by a member of the Ainu, an indigenous group of people now mostly situated in Hokkaido, Japan. Traditionally the Ainu relied mostly on hunting and fishing for survival.
These shoes were donated to the museum in 1948 by Frank Scolinos who served in the armed forces as an assistant to General Douglas MacArthur during WWII. After the war, Mr. Scolinos stayed in Japan to marry a Japanese woman and became one of the few American lawyers in the country at that time.
Leopard Skin Shoes
These shoes from the Congo in the 1890s are made of leopard skin and according to their associated documentation, they were made by “Rafaï’s men.” From about 1875 to 1900, Rafaï was the sultan of a large Bandia-Zande kingdom in what is now called the Central African Republic.
The collector of these shoes, William Stamps Cherry, was the first American to spend a significant amount of time in the Central African Republic where he became known as a big game and ivory hunter and met many local chiefs. According to his journals, Cherry became good friends with Sultan Rafai.
Golden Lotus Shoes
These shoes for bound feet come from Nanjing, China, during the Qing Dynasty, circa 1900. Bound feet or “lotus feet” were considered appealing to men, partially because they were thought to make women move more daintily. The most desirable size foot or “golden lotus” was around 4 inches, and women with golden lotus feet were more likely to marry into prestigious families. These shoes are a little over 4 inches in length, so their owner was likely among the elite and walked on them very little, judging by the small amount of wear on their delicately embroidered soles.
Woven Hawaiian Sandals
These sandals were collected in Hawaii, circa 1910, by William Alanson Bryan, director of NHMLA, or what was then the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science, and Art from 1921-1940. Prior to coming to Los Angeles, Bryan was a Curator of Ornithology at the Bernice P. Bishop Museum in Hawaii and later founded the Pacific Scientific Institution to promote biological and anthropological research in the Pacific.
Polar Bear Boots
These boots were collected in the Thule District of Greenland while their donors were on a Narwhale Expedition with the Museum in 1976. They are made from the fur and skin of an interesting variety of animals. The upper portions of the outside of the boots are made of either harp or ringed seal skin, while the soles are made of bearded seal skin. There is a separated liner inserted in each boot that has cloth on the outside and rabbit fur on the inside, but the upper fringe that extends above the top of the boots is polar bear fur.
Norwegian Reindeer Booties
These boots called skaller come from Kautokeino, in the Finnmark county of Norway, circa 1960. Kautokeino is one of the two cultural centers in Northern Sápmi (also referred to as Lapland) traditionally inhabited by the Sami people (formerly referred to as Lapps or Laplanders). The Sami are the only indigenous peoples recognized in Scandinavia, and they’ve relied heavily on reindeer herding to survive their Arctic environment.
Though these boots are noted to have been made for the tourist trade, they are also the type of boots customarily used by the Sami, though not for long-distance travelling. They are made from the reindeer skin taken in the autumn.
These Yankton Sioux (Yanktonai, Western Dakota) moccasins are from the late 1800s, and as you can see, they have fully beaded soles. Contrary to the widely held belief that moccasins with beaded soles were only for burials, they were more often made for the living to wear on special occasions to express merit and pride. When they were included in a burial, they were a sign of reverence.
The myth that moccasins with beaded soles are “burial moccasins” comes from witnessing them on the bodies of Sioux that were found in burials after battles. Seeing them in that context led the witnesses to assume that they were placed on the body as a preparation for the afterlife. However, once asked, the makers of fully beaded moccasins deny the assumption and point to historic photos in which these types of moccasins were worn during marriage ceremonies and important social gatherings.
The cultural attribution for these moccasins is either Chippewa-Ojibwa (Anishinaabe) or Cree, both groups that historically lived in the northeastern region of the United States. Floral designs are most often seen on moccasins from the East; a direct result of their early contact with European decorative arts. The traditionally European imagery was reconfigured and incorporated into embroidery and beadwork designs that eventually came to reflect the maker’s cultural identity.
The soles offer another indication of their origin. Soft sole moccasins were more commonly used in the Eastern Woodlands because they were better suited for travelling quietly through the leaf- and pine-covered ground of forests.