Crakows: A Brief History of 14th and 15th-Century Footwear

Loyset Liedet – The Marriage of Renaud of Mantauban and Clarisse, 1460-7. Paris: Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Ms.5073, f.117v.. Source: Wikimedia

These days, it’s not uncommon to see women wearing shoes with pointy toes. In the 14th and 15th centuries, though, men were much more likely to be seen in this intriguing footwear.

At the time, pointy-toed shoes were knowns as “crakows” or “poulaines” and were favored by nobility in the medieval period.

Shoe, late 14th century. Leather; 31 x 7 x 6.8 cm. London: Museum of London, BC72[79]<2496>. Source: Museum of London

According to an article from Shoe IQ, the toes on these shoes could “extend anywhere from a couple of inches to over 20 inches in length.” The Met also explains that the shoes were stuffed with moss or other fillings to keep their shape, too, and the exterior was made of leather with decorative embossing.

Crakows were not a passing fad. In fact, they were popular among the noble class for nearly 150 years.

Who Wore Crakows?

During medieval times, crakows were only accessible to the wealthy.

Not only were they expensive, but they were also impractical to anyone in the working class. After all, nobody who had a job that required manual labor — and most positions available during the middle ages required a great deal of manual labor — would be able to get their work done while wearing long, pointy-toed shoes.

Crakows were a status symbol during this period. They were the private jets and Rolexes of the time.

The length of the shoe’s toes also sent a message about how wealthy someone was. In general, the longer the toe, the more wealth and prestige the wearer possessed.

Lorenz Helmschmied – Armoured shoes of Maximilian I, 1485. Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum, A 62. Source: Wikipedia

Men went to great lengths — no pun intended — to make their shoes as long as possible while still being able to walk around. An article published by New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology explains that some men would even attach whalebone, string, or chains of silver or gold from the toes of the shoes to their knees to keep themselves from tripping.

Why Were They so Popular?

Crakows were well-loved during medieval times because they were a status symbol. However, they also were considered to be quite flattering at the time.

Men who wore crakows were considered very sexy. The low-cut shoes showed off a great deal of ankle — especially since men wore shorter tunics as well, which showed off more of their legs while they were out and about.

In an interview with Atlas Obscura, Jackie Keily, the Museum of London’s senior curator, explained that the shoes also became popular after the bubonic plague ended. Shopping for fancy, expensive shoes may have been a type of “retail therapy” for those who survived the plague, which was responsible for the deaths of over 25 million people.

When Did They Go Out of Style?

In 1368, King Charles V passed a law prohibiting crakows because they made it difficult for men to kneel in prayer while wearing them.

When King Edward IV came into power, the poulaine met their end in England as well. The king banned shoes with toes longer than 2 inches because he considered them to have salacious undertones.

By 1475, hardly anyone was seen wearing crakows, and they were considered unfashionable. They resurfaced in England in the 1950s, though, with a new and interesting name: Winklepickers.