The sordid past of the fashionable mule

I bought my first pair of mules last fall at Vagabond on Old City’s eclectic Third Street.

At the time, the brand-new pair of caramel Rachel Comey shoes looked deliciously worn. The smooth leather round toe and chunky wooden heel made the part-slipper, part-pump hybrid of a slip-on so very versatile. And over the last year, I’ve paired them with tunics and leggings; the deep denim trousers-meets-blazer combo; and,  occasionally, the slightly dressy sheath.
But I didn’t know about the backless shoe’s sordid past.

Camera icon Summit
Leather and fur are always a fashionable go. These shoes are courtesy of Summit and are available at www.summitwhitemountain.com

Where do they come from?

Mules were slippers of the ancient Romans, and they remained the indoor shoe of choice through the 16th century. In the 1800s, heels were added for lift; by the middle of the 19th century, they were considered the footwear of prostitutes. (See: Edouard Manet’s famous oil painting Olympia, in which a nude woman lies fetchingly on a bed, wearing a choker, a bracelet — and yellow satin mules.)

In the 1950s, Marilyn Monroe popularized the shoe; in the 1980s, Manolo Blahnik brought it back, skinnier.

Why are they back now?

Because runway collections — think Marni, Dior, Kenzo, and Phillip Lim — require shoes that looks great with ’50s princess, ’60s mod, ’70s eclectic, and ’90s minimal. Not to mention that we need our shoes to do double and triple duty, and mules do that better than most.

And then there is this: “Hipsters and gentrifiers love clogs,” said New York fashion historian and professor Elena Romero. “Anything with practicality, function, and style … I’m with it.”

Should you wear them?

Yes. And as we ease into the winter months, don’t worry about a cold (or ashy) heel. Just put on a pair of tights. I sure will.