by Margarita Gokun-Silver
The Victorian era added its own twist to the infatuation with the indoor shoe. Women used Berlin wool work, a needlepoint style popular at the time, to make the uppers of their husband’s home slippers. “[They] would take those uppers to a shoemaker who would then add a sole. And they would be gifted to the husband to wear while he is smoking his pipe by the fire in the evening,” says Semmelhack.
Portraits of the Russian upper classes of the 18th and 19th century frequently feature subjects in either the Ottoman style mules or in thin—intended for indoor use—slipper-shoes. The same couldn’t be said for the poor. Peasants and laborers are either shown barefoot, wearing boots meant for outdoor work, or donning valenki, the traditional Russian felt boot. Perhaps because of this link between the indoor footwear and the leisure of the rich, tapochki were snubbed immediately following the 1917 Russian Revolution. Remnants of the maligned, old world had no place in the new Soviet paradigm. But the sentiment didn’t stick. Although never as extravagant or ornate as before, soon tapochki were back in most Soviet homes offering their owners comfort after a long day of building the Communist paradise.
Today, attitudes towards taking off shoes indoors vary, often by national culture. An Italian friend told me it was considered rude to go barefoot in the house in Italy, and a Spanish friend raised her eyebrows when I offered a pair of slippers. “Spaniards don’t take their shoes off.”
In Japan, where slippers are a Western introduction, most people take off their outdoor shoes before going indoors. Jordan Sand, a professor of Japanese History at Georgetown University, notes that architecture accommodates the practice. “The Japanese live in dwellings with raised floors. It’s basic, even in modern apartment buildings, that every private dwelling has space at the entry,” he explains. “As you enter the door there is a little space and step up and the rest of the house is higher than the outside. You shed your footwear there. In a traditional house, most of the interior space is covered with tatami mats. No footwear is worn on tatami mats.” While the Japanese generally go either barefoot or wear socks on the mats, there are exceptions. In those parts of the house that aren’t covered by tatami—the kitchen, the hallway, and the toilet—people wear slippers. A singular pair of slippers is reserved specifically for the toilet, where it stays.
When I moved to the U.S. in 1989, slippers disappeared from my life. Americans never took off their shoes and their wall-to-wall carpeting bore traces of the outside tracked indoors on the soles of their footwear. I could never get used to it. My shoes came off immediately whenever I entered my house and I’ve asked my guests to take off theirs. The panoply of terry mules I have hoarded from hotels is always on hand to help.
A rare history of the custom of removing shoes and changing into slippers.