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Iconic: The Espadrilles

Once a working-class shoe, then the footwear of choice of Spain’s Franquistas, this rope-and-canvas sandal has attracted eccentrics such as Salvador Dalí, fashion designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, and in recent years, luxury and ready-to-wear brands.

Basic and affordable, the espadrille has long been labeled the poor man’s shoe. The Basque country and Catalonia each claim to have invented it. According to historians, the infantrymen of King Peter II of Aragon were already wearing them back in the 13th century. French-made espadrilles appeared in the 18th century in the Béarn and the Basque country, with hemp weavers producing the soles, and seamstresses making the linen fabric that covers the shoe. The sandal was worn in turn by peasants, priests and miners.

In the 19th century, French espadrille production became solidly headquartered in the French town of Mauléon, in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques. Espadrilles are mass-produced, and always by hand. To meet rising demand, young women streamed in from the villages of Aragon to produce them. These women were known as the “swallows”’ (les hirondelles). At that time, the espadrille was worn in two ways only: white on Sunday, black the rest of the week. By royal decree, General Franco’s Spain made the espadrille mandatory for the country’s infantry in 1936. Soldiers were dispatched to the battlefront… in
espadrilles.

The Ropes of Success

After the war, a variety of models appeared with rubber soles. Thanks to this innovation, the espadrille became a leisure shoe, and fashion designers took an interest. In 1971, to accessorize his 1940’s-inspired collection, Yves Saint Laurent had the idea of creating platform espadrilles with ribbons tied delicately around the woman’s ankles. The Catalan duo Isabel and Lorenzo Castañer produced them for him, lending the espadrille a touch of class.

JFK-kenny-espadrilles-1938-london

John F. Kennedy in 1938.

Cary-Grant-Grace-Kelly-To-Catch-a-Thief-1955-espadrilles

Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in 1955. © Alamy

Sometimes nicknamed la Tropézienne because of its popularity on the Côte d’Azur, the espadrille became synonymous with vacation. Elevated to the status of seaside icon, worn by (among others) Françoise Sagan, Lauren Bacall and Pablo Picasso, it overtook flip-flops, which had a hard time going any further than seaside stalls. The espadrille was exported all over the world, and countless person- alities were seen wearing it: Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and Salvador Dalí among others.

A Chic Bohemanian Symbol

Starting from nothing and becoming fashionable without losing a shred of its simplicity, the contemporary espadrille is not all that different from the one that peasants used to wear, with one exception: there’s no longer a need to coat the rope with tar to make it last longer. In the 1970s, hippies added the espadrille to their panoply of Tibetan charms, Indian scarves, henna and patchouli.

Today, luxury brands — from Hermès to Chanel via Christian Louboutin or Louis Vuitton — have moved in to propose their own Made in France models. Embroidered with lace chez Valentino, covered with leopard prints chez Céline, or designed in a two-color fabric bearing the famous double C chez Chanel, the espadrille has also been revisited by authentic brands such as Castañer and Rivieras and designer labels such as Espartine, String Republic or Asos.

While fashion today is returning to the hippy chic tendencies of the 1970s (Jane Birkin-style wicker baskets are back), the espadrille is still being worn on the beach and on the sidewalk. This summer, Parisians are opting for a “French-sailor striped” model, picked up at the Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville in the Marais neighborhood or at the Galeries Lafayette, while New Yorkers can buy theirs at Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s, which, for the past 10 years, has offered luxurious models with fluorescent prints and satin laces.

Long disdained by snobs, the espadrille now has a choice spot in male and female wardrobes. In the end, there’s nothing better than a good old pair of 10-euros espadrilles to complement a linen suit worn casually on the Croisette.

Article published in the May 2017 issue of France-Amérique

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