Never as popular in the United States as in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and South America, espadrilles are the European counterpart to the North American moccasin. The espadrille as it is known today, with its rope sole and fabric upper, had taken form prior to the discovery of the New World. The shoe is the creation of the people of the Pyrenees Mountains, the natural border between Spain and France.
The historical record indicates that such shoes were worn by the infantry of the king of Aragon around the 13th century. The word “espadrille” derives from “esparto,” a type of plant that is burned then hand-braided by “alpargateros,” (which means“makers of alpargatas” [espadrilles]) to make the soles of the shoes. While the alpargateros were typically men, the fabric uppers of the shoes were traditionally made by “costureras,” the Spanish word for “seamstresses.”
The widespread use of the espadrille begins at the beginning of the 19th century when the city of Mauléon, a French city located on the Atlantic Pyrenees, began producing vast quantities of the shoe for use by the Catalano-Aragonese military and then by the clergy. By the end of the 19th century, espadrilles were primarily being sold to mine-workers and exported to parts of South America. (The sandal-style espadrilles, for example, are to this day popular amongst the descendants of the Incas in countries such as Ecuador and Peru). Because the espadrille is primarily a warm-weather shoe, with its popularity came its organized production: “Hirondelles,” young girls from the Aragonese valleys, would be organized to work in the espadrille factories during the fall and winter months so that the shoes could be available for market during the spring and summer months.
The traditional colors of the alpargata are black and the natural (off-white) color of the fabric. But by the 1950s, the fashion industry began its slow encroachment upon the traditional styles and colors of the shoe. And by the 1960s, when Yves Saint Laurent designed an espadrille with a heel, the shoe began making its way into mainstream fashion. Today, the espadrille is a fashion staple in Spain, France, and all the regions of the world influenced by those two countries during the colonial era. But in 2014, the espadrille made a major fashion breakthrough when many of the major North American design and manufacturing houses included espadrilles in their spring/summer collections. Shapes, colors, fabrics, and manufacturing techniques of the espadrille vary widely today, but the overall conceptual integrity of the shoe remains. An espadrille, despite all the variations that have occurred upon its rustic theme over the years, is still just an espadrille.