The Espadrille. The ultimate summer shoe – unisex, flat, wedge, with or without ties. The espadrille first “emerged” in the Basque & Catalan regions of Northern Spain/Southern France. In 14th century Spain, espadrilles were not fashion items but workwear worn by soldiers and peasants alike because they were cheap and practical. The Basque & Catalan rebel fighters habitually wore espadrilles because they were cheaper than leather army boots, easy to replace and forgiving on hot terrain. Espadrilles became the a symbol of the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939) when pictures emerged of Catalan rebels marching nagainst General Franco’s armies wearing espadrilles on their feet.
Whilst the Spanish Civil War was going on, over the Spanish border in the French Catalan region, the village of St Laurent de Cerdans embraced the Catalan espadrille and developed the traditional craft into a flourishing industry which has given families in the entire valley a livelihood for 100 years. In the 1960s production went into decline – caused mainly by cheaper, foreign imports. From 15 factories in the 1930s , there is only 1 factory today – “Creation Catalane”. Creation Catalane was created in February 2008 in a former espadrille factory, producing hand made espadrilles in a traditional way – with the French flag on the back to differentiate the espadrilles from those being made over the border in Spain.
By the end of the Spanish Civil War, the humble espadrille was getting international attention. Artist Salvador Dali played up his Catalan roots by wearing laced up espadrilles with red socks and a skull cap. Hollywood movie goddesses wore them: Rita Hayworth in “The Lady From Shanghai” in 1947 and Lauren Bacall in “Key Largo” in 1948. In the 1970s, Yves Saint Laurent happened to meet traditional Spanish espadrille maker, Castaer, at a trade fair and asked him if he would consider making an espadrille in a different shape … and the wedge heeled espadrille was born.
In Spain, like in St Laurent de Cerdans, traditional espadrille makers are few – the most famous are Castaer and Naguisa, based in Barcelona. In Spain, a store that sells traditionally handmade espadrilles is called “Alpargateria” . Today, the majority of the world’s espadrilles are now mass-produced in Bangladesh.
The word “espadrille” derives from “esparto”, the Mediterranean grass traditionally used to make the braided sole. Each part of the espadrille was traditionally made by a different artisan:
- Flax Uppers ( now cotton canvas – each Catalan region has its own fabric pattern)
- Wearing and pressing on the rope soles
- Assembly the shoe with decorative stitches
- Sealing soles with pitch (replaced nowadays with rubber)
Espadrilles are ideal as summer footwear. Recommended to be worn without socks – the espadrille is made with natural fibres that absorb humidity and allow the foot to breathe. If you do happen to get the shoes wet, leave them to thoroughly dry out for 5 – 7 days until the rope is thoroughly dry and then they will be good to go. You can wash your espadrilles, preferably by hand using a soft brush and natural soap. If you do want to machine wash them, a cold wash is preferable but whatever method you use, let the shoes dry naturally- don’t tumble dry. When you first get your espadrilles, they should be a tight fit as they naturally mould to your foot. That’s what I love about espadrilles – having a narrow foot I find that they keep moulded to my foot shape and don’t slip off! My pink espadrilles below have been washed in the sea numerous times and are almost 10 years old …. and they still maintain their shape.
If you would like to check out traditional Catalan espadrilles – there is an English version :
All photographs are by Linda Hobden.