Tracing the History of the Clog through Dance

Made from sturdy, hardwearing wood, clogs have been worn in many cultures for hundreds of years due to their ability to retain warmth and protect the foot from sharp objects. Although initially worn by workers for their functional nature, they began to be associated with dance and performance around the world, as those wearing them used the soles to create rhythmic sounds when their feet struck the ground. The wood lends itself to being painted and lacquered for a decorative quality, the brightness drawing attention to the feet, heightening the lyrical quality of the dancer’s movements. Traditionally made by hand, clogs not only vary between cultures and countries but on a smaller scale, between villages, depending on the maker and their preferences for form and pattern.

Perhaps the most recognisable clogs are klompen from the Netherlands. Often painted yellow, they trace back centuries; one of the oldest klompen, found in Amsterdam, is made from alder wood and dates back to the 13th century. These styles were made to protect feet from dirty, uneven ground and took inspiration from calceus shoes, worn in Ancient Rome, which had a wooden sole and leather straps on top, resembling sandals. In the harsher, wetter climate of the Netherlands, it was necessary to create the entire shoe from wood; the skilled craftspeople who made these clogs were called bodgers, and hewed the shoes out of alder, balsa, willow, beech and sycamore as the wood from these trees did not split easily. Each village had its own bodger, resulting in slightly different styles and decoration from place to place. They were often worn by farmers and those working in construction, providing both protection and warmthyet they were not only worn for work, but also for traditional klompendansen (translating literally to ‘clog dancing’), with the striking of the shoes on the ground creating a reverberating, percussive sound.

In Japan, wooden shoes remain tied to performance. Geta styles have a wooden sole known as a dai,elevated on two or three ‘teeth’ and held on the foot by a fabric strap. They were worn by oiran, high-ranking courtesans of the feudal period, who wore them when walking with their attendants—they became a point of difference between the social classes, a performative, visual distinction. While geisha and maiko (apprentice geisha) wore split-toe tabi socks, oiran did not, with the bare foot against the lacquered wood considered erotic. Modern-day maiko still wear okobo shoes, which are typically made from paulownia wood, then lacquered and adorned with small bells in a hollow underneath the platform, jingling and chiming softly as they walk. The straps on these styles act as symbols: red straps are worn by new apprentices, whereas yellow straps are worn by senior apprentices. In the morning, maiko take lessons in the traditional arts, while at night, they dance and sing at the ochaya tea houses, and their wooden shoes become part of the performance.

Far from Japan, during the smoky Industrial Revolution in England clogs were worn to protect the feet of workers in textile mills, who endured the stifling noise of the rhythmic weaving machinery. They had wooden bases, often sycamore or alder, and clog dancing developed as a result of the mill workers syncopating foot taps with the rhythmic sounds made by the loom shuttles. It became a widespread pastime and during the 19th century, competitions were held and clog dancers performed in music halls, wearing lighter and more brightly coloured clogs made specifically for dancing. Some had metal nailed to the soles, so sparks would fly as they struck the ground, creating a theatrical atmosphere. For competitions, dancers would wear colours that made them easy to identify, and breeches were worn which allowed their leg movements to be seen, spotlighting their wooden shoes. Clog dancing is a continuing tradition in Wales, which originated with workers in slate mines. The dancers performed tricks such as snuffing out a lit candle with their feet or leaping high into the air, and the craft is still celebrated at festivals in Wales such as the National Eisteddfodau, where performers demonstrate their athleticism and skill.

Today, clogs mainly echo Swedish styles known as träskor, with wooden bases made from alder, birch or pine, offset by leather uppers. They’re so coveted by the Swedes that they’re part of their national dress, and were taken by travellers to North America during the 20th century, who couldn’t bear to part with them. As a result, they became highly popular in the 1960s and ’70s among bohemian circles, worn by free-spirited artists and musicians. Yet all modern-day clogs echo wooden shoes worn around the world. Despite their sturdy, stiff nature, they have always been complemented by organic gestures, and associated with performance, dance and movement.

Words by Alice Simkins.

Illustrations by Molly Martin.

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