History of Shoes: Mules

How a ceremonial Roman shoe still conveys status today.

Mules are simple shoes with a complicated story. Available in a wide variety of styles and commonly worn by both genders, the mule is defined simply as a backless shoe. It can be a sandal, a clog, a sneaker, high- or low-healed, casual or formal. This variety can make the shoe seem uniquely modern, especially in the way the mule is increasingly used in unexpected fashion pairings – such as, for women, a formal, high-heeled version paired with jeans.

The mule though, has ancient roots, and it has nothing to do with the animal. The shoe’s name actually derives from the Latin word mulleus, which was a type of ceremonial shoe worn by highly placed government officials in ancient Rome. Then mules were always a dark, red leather, but today the name indicates the cut of the shoe rather than its color or purpose.

The mule as an indicator of status has, however, been a constant for the shoe. A laborer would derive little use out of a shoe that could so easily slip off the foot, and it certainly wasn’t a style that would protect from the elements, meaning that anyone who owned mules, surely had the luxury of owning other pairs of shoes as well.

Mules, of course, went from magistrates to nobles and it was at court that the flashy luxury of the shoe shone. High-heeled mules for both genders were popular in the Baroque-era and many examples predictably come from Versailles and the other elaborate courts of the era.

Today’s mules are often styles to showcase a less flashy luxury. Mule versions of sneakers indicate casualness, but also imply the luxury of owning athletic shoes merely for fashion. Men’s mules also indicate a wealthy but casual lifestyle. Usually leather and entirely inappropriate at the office, the male mule indicates a well-dress leisure life. The habit of women using mules to dress up jeans or favoring low, but narrow heeled mules that can be deceptively difficult to walk in are also luxury indicators.

This conveyance of status is somewhat unique for a shoe-style that has become so ubiquitous, but regardless of the mule’s ancient origins, it has adapted well to the modern world where mass production has brought a greater sense of luxury to so many people.