ho does not remember Dalí with the Catalan barretina (a traditional beanie), the peasant bread or the astronaut’s helmet on his head, that almost provoked his suffocation in London? But what if we think of his feet? Surely, we immediately remember him wearing espardenyes (espadrilles). In the same way as Josep Pla, the genius of surrealism claimed the value of this shoe with esparto or hemp soles.
Although this type of footwear is traditional of the former territories of the Crown of Aragon, Occitania and the Basque Country, its use spread rapidly in America. Being a light and fresh footwear, it was adopted in countries such as Argentina and Uruguay by rural workers
The origin of the espardenya is located in Egypt, with its typical sandals interwoven in the ankle, that were used later by the Roman troops. Now, their first reference is found in a text of 1322, written in ancient Catalan, that refers to the rigor with which they should be done: “…que les espadenyes sien ben feytes et sien de bon espart (…) XXVI punts et de sobre lo peu onze cordes et detràs el taló IIII cordes” [“the espadrilles should be well made and with good esparto (…) having 26 points, and above the foot eleven cords and behind the heel four cords”]. Indeed, for centuries the manufacture of espadrilles was traditionally made in family-style workplaces in Catalonia, where hemp was grown.
Although this type of footwear is traditional of the former territories of the Crown of Aragon, Occitania and the Basque Country, its use spread rapidly in America. Being a light and fresh footwear, it was adopted in countries such as Argentina and Uruguay by rural workers. In Colombia they also manufacture them with animal skin and receive the name of cotizas or cocuizas. In Venezuela it is also a fairly widespread footwear even today. Moreover, being an element that has been associated many times in the workers’ world, it was part of political slogans such as, for example, in the electoral race prior to the 1946 Argentine elections, when it could be heard: “no to the dictatorship of alpargatas [espadrilles]”. A slogan that gave rise to its opposite: “alpargatas yes, books no”.
Although the main catwalks of the world in which models have worn espadrilles were of feminine fashion, espadrilles are becoming also a product of haute couture for men
A humble footwear, like Muslim slippers, it was not until the late sixties that it began to be considered a shoe that could offer much more. “In the same way that the mules, which come from the slippers and the influence of the East of the 18th and 19th centuries, have become a hit due to their versatility, the same has happened to the espardenya, whose fabric can be of every colour and tonality, using silks, tulle, organza, embroidery and serigraphs. This is why we think it has been a smash in haute couture during the last seasons”, explain fashion designers Fabricio Pérez and Jaime Llamazares (www.llamazaresydedelgado.com), who have shown that, although the main catwalks of the world in which models have worn espadrilles were of feminine fashion, espadrilles are becoming also a product of haute couture for men, like the ones they make.
Castañer became the brand that started wearing Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Jane Birkin, Lauren Bacall and even Humphrey Bogart, among others
“This jump to fashion has a main protagonist, Yves Saint Laurent, who in the seventies asked the firm Castañer to make wedge espardenyes“, tells us Julia Weems, director of the fashion area of the Istituto Europeo di Design (IED) in Barcelona. Indeed, during a fair in Paris Lorenzo and Isabel Castañer met Yves, who asked them to turn the espadrille into an elegant and sensual shoe by making it high. That’s when Lorenzo Castañer said: “If Yves Saint Laurent wants an espardenya with a heel, he will have it!”. And, thus, it happened.
Since then, Castañer became the brand that began to wear Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Jane Birkin, Lauren Bacall and even Humphrey Bogart, among others. Today there are many actresses and it-girls who wear them when they attend Fashion Weeks, such as Alexa Chung, Blake Lively or Keira Knightley. Of course, mostly without heel, like the original espardenya. Here is the reason. After the reign of the heel, the so-called “espadrilles” -a more glamorous term, in the fashion world- like the slippers and dance shoes, have become the footwear par excellence of women. Let us remember how some of the models in a collection of the great Alexander McQueen refused to parade with the so-called “Armadillo boots”, 30 centimetres high, afraid of breaking a leg. Shortly after, Chloé, at that time with Phoebe Philo at the forefront as artistic director, made models walk in dance shoes. A real U-turn.
And as expected, such a piece for centuries is also present in the Catalan proverbs. Thus, we find sayings such as “to tie up firmly the espardenyes” in the sense of getting prepared for a tough performance; or “where God lost the espardenyes“, referring to a very distant place; “in September, the day wears espardenyes“, which is interpreted in the sense of September as a month of mild weather that still allows to dress freshly during the day; or “at San Juan, take the espardenyes and go out, otherwise, you will go hungry”, because it is the ideal time to do the harvest of the cereals, since they are already ripe and it is still not too hot to work under the sun.
“I think that the espardenya will continue to be present in the fashion world for years, it has a lot of charm, it is comfortable, and it avoids other types of ugly shoes that are now only a temporal trend. It will always be necessary wearing something comfortable, beautiful and versatile”, concludes Julia Weems.