“I experimented with pieces of Sardinian cork, pushing and gluing and fixing and trimming until the entire space between the sole and the heel was blocked solid.” -Salvatore Ferragamo
Delving into the world of footwear, wedges are essential – especially if you’ve ever tripped or fallen while wearing stilettos. Regardless of season, style, or trend, there are wedges to complete and complement any outfit. For such a fashion chameleon, it may come as a surprise to learn that something so simple isn’t actually that old of an idea, even though the word and concept that lies behind it comes from a much older principle, which was even used to build the Egyptian pyramids. Let’s take a walk through the history of the wedge.
Originating as the Old English wecg, our word wedge, along with the Old Norse veggr and the Old High German weggi, is derived from the Proto-Germanic wagjaz, which, while of uncertain origin, is thought to be related to the Latin vomer, ‘ploughshare’. First appearing around 725 in the Corpus Glossary, one of the Anglo-Saxon glossaries that attempted to pair-off Latin terms with Old English ones, our word was equated as, “Cuneus, waecg (wedge)”, which we could define as meaning a piece of wood, metal, or other hard material, thick at one end and tapering to a thin edge at the other.
Beyond the word itself, wedges, which are the movable/portable examples of inclined planes as well as being one of the six classical simple machines, are actually older than written languages. Without getting too scientific, wedges are what make a knife able to cut through material, an axe through wood, or, as an inclined plane, wedges allow for heavy objects to be lifted using less force. Looking at the pyramids, wedges were initially used to cut and shape the stones used in their construction, and, once the stones were ready, they were moved into place using the inclined plane, thus requiring less force.
Although this relates to wedges in general, it doesn’t necessarily relate to shoes. What really relates this term to shoes is actually the shape. Beginning in 1821, with Percy Bysshe Shelley’s work, Adonais: an elegy on the death of John Keats, which states that: “One keen pyramid with wedge sublime, Pavilioning the dust of him who planned This refuge for his memory.”, our term moves from a literal, structural meaning into more of a generalized appearance meaning.
The story of the shoe itself is the story of Italian shoe designer Salvatore Ferragamo. Becoming known as the “Shoemaker to the Stars” in the 1920s for his designs and quality workmanship, Ferragamo, attempting to produce shoes that are fashionable as well as comfortable, couldn’t meet market demand and unable to meet demand without adequate shoemakers, moved himself and his shoe production from Hollywood to Florence, Italy. Due to economic sanctions at the onset of World War II, a shortage of the traditional materials used in shoe making forced Ferragamo to experiment with alternative materials, such as cork, straw, felt and wood. Being durable and lightweight, cork was the winner, but, aside from just the basic construction, this new style of shoe – employing a “wedge lift” at the back of the foot – provided both more support and comfort for the foot and more stability than a narrow heel.
Launched in 1938 by the Duchess Visconti di Modrone, Ferragamo’s wedges became their most popular style within a matter of weeks. The term would enter the English lexicon the following year (1939) in Mary Brooks Picken’s The Language of Fashion, being defined as: “Wedge-soled, having a wedge-shaped piece making a solid sole, flat on the ground from heel to toe.”
Not only did the wedge become known as a classic a mere several years after its introduction, but it has endured and gained in notoriety so much so that, considering its addition in Chambers’s 20th Century Dictionary (1959) under solely the term “wedge”, there’s the distinct possibility that just as many people recognize our word as meaning shoes as do those recognizing it as the means of building the pyramids.