They’re a little rough around the edges, literally as well as metaphorically. But you can keep your knotted neckerchief, fisherman’s cap and Breton top – nothing speaks more of a life on the waves than a humble pair of espadrilles. Or, at least, of a life near the waves: although the espadrille was created as a rugged, comfortable shoe for fishermen and other hard-toiling folk, it has somewhat been co-opted by Riviera cafe culture.
It’s the shoe you wear not just when you want to dress down for the sun and sand, like the real locals do, but when you want to dress up in a way to signal the fact. It’s a look both cool and refined, as displayed by JFK on holiday and Alain Delon in Plein Soleil, for Salvador Dali at rest and for Pablo Picasso at work.
At least Dali and Picasso were Spanish, and so could claim the birthright. The espadrille is a product of the Pyrenees region, the upper made of something tough, like canvas or linen, the sole of braided hemp, jute or, originally, a plant called ‘esparto’ in Catalan that gave the shoe its name. It was the kind of shoe that is affordable enough to be worn – on the boat, in the fields, around the farm, historically even down the mines- until it falls apart and is then readily replaced. As shoemaker and owner of Grenson, Tim Little has put it, the espadrille is the “2CV of shoes. They’re cheap, they’re hardwearing, they breathe – so they work in hot weather – and you can make them in any colour.”
This primitive form of unisex shoe may, in fact, date back millennia – and certainly something very close has been discovered in ancient cave dwellings in Spain dated to some 4,000 years ago. Even the recognisably current form of espadrilles date to the 13th century and were originally made to shod the King of Aragon’s infantry. It was in the 13th century too that the making of espadrilles moved from the home to what then passed for a factory, with the professional espadrille maker – or ‘alpargatero’ – focused on the more complex craft element, the making of the sole, while seamstresses sewed on the fabric upper.