The history of the straw sandal covers 7,000 years, crossing many diverse cultures and customs. The abundance and variety of this early type of footwear is testament to the ingenuity of ancient civilisations who crafted sandals out of indigenous plant fibres. Different techniques evolved including weaving, sewing, plaiting and twisting the straw to create simple protection for the feet. In many societies, straw sandals continue to be essential workwear today.
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The earliest known version of the Cinderella story tells of an Egyptian slave girl who loses her straw sandals. Although the Ancient Egyptians went barefoot most of the time, they wore sandals for special occasions or if their feet were likely to get hurt. Straw, reeds or papyrus were woven into shoes with a toe peg, similar to today's flip-flops.
In ancient times, almost everyone in China wore some kind of straw shoes, regardless of their status. The particularly humid climate in the south required lightweight, moisture-absorbing sandals. Straw or hemp was used for the soles. It was plaited or twisted then sewn into place with bamboo needles. The traditional Chinese art of knotting was used to create straps that were secure and attractive.
The archetypal footwear of the Indian subcontinent, straw sandals reflect cultural diversity and use local materials in their styling. Dried grass from the Himalayan foothills provides the plant fibre for Tibetan goatskin-soled sandals. Simple Nepalese working shoes are crafted from rice straw grown on the valley terraces. Dyed chara grass colours the upturned toecaps of Kapulas, the traditional straw shoes hand-woven by Kashmiri women.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Japanese rice straw sandals developed about 2,000 years ago. Waraji are twisted straw sandals that tie securely onto the feet and ankle. They were developed to be worn over other shoes or on their own in wet fields. Zori developed after Waraji and have straw soles and a toe peg. Simple rice straw Zori are suitable for everyday wear. Double-soled Zori symbolise matrimonial harmony and are often given as bridal gifts.
Korean straw sandals have a 2,000-year history. Originally woven for farming families by their servants, the traditional Jipsin was fairly crude and functional. However, the design developed and Jipsin became popular everyday wear for ordinary Korean workers. The grass for Jipsin is immersed in water and left to ferment, resulting in a soft material much more comfortable than untreated straw. It is still Korean tradition to wear Jipsin to a formal funeral as a symbol of respect.
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