Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Feet, Shoes and Superstition : Basts and laptej - Russian Superstitions

If you have the good fortune to have Russian friends or neighbours next time you are visiting them have a look for a lucky talisman many Russian families keep to fend off evil spirits. The old custom was to keep a pair of bast shoes fastened to the door to fend off the evil eye. Bast shoes are basket weave, often miniature, and filled with dried flowers. The custom dates back to the Dark Ages and of course no one is sure of its origins.

How the bast came about was really through sandal making. The early Russian sandal makers would weave the sole using bast (the inner bark of the lime, larch, birch, willow and even juniper trees) and these were called Lapti.

The bark was prepared by soaking a long time, and then straightened under a press. It took 3 or 4 saplings to make one pair with a double sole, these were fragile and might only last one week.

Lapti were worn by the rural peasants. Bast was also used to weave shoes and these were less expensive than leather but basket was not so robust. Eventually shoemakers combined bast and leather straps to make longer lasting Lapti.

From the 12-14th centuries, city dwellers wore shoes made from "cuts" of fabric, little pieces of smooth wool cloth and even of silk ribbon and these were called pleteshki (wicker/weaving). Depending on the traditions and ethnic region various weaving patterns were used (oblique, straight). The form of laptej (plural of lapti) also varied depending on locality: southern and Poleski lapti were open, while northern - "bakhili" - had the form of a narrow boot. The bast shoe was used all over European Russia, but not in Siberia. They were worn over leg wraps with the whole thing secured by straps.

In the winter, furs and felt were used extensively. Felt boots (valenki) were worn on the coldest, driest days. Melting snow or mud will ruin felt boots and make the wearer miserable with soaked, cold feet. But when the weather was cold and dry, felt boots remained impermeable, and provided warm footwear. Leather boots were also common.

Archaeological finds support leather boots became fashionable in Russia about 14th century and were worn by young and old alike. Boots were worn by the Tatar and Mongol tribes, in the Middle Ages and shoemaking was a popular trade in Russian towns. Improved skills meant more robust boots became available by 16th century. They normally attached the wooden heel under the sole, the heel was covered by leather and the boots were worn knee-high and cut at an angle. Red boots were very popular and boots for men and women were cut alike with no allowance made for left and right. There is some evidence of specially made shoes to accommodate flat feet. (circa 16th century). By this time a multiplayer heel became fashionable in Moscow. Then, shoemakers used the heel (6-7cms) as an arch support which made walking laboured. Later heel plates (crescent shaped heel protector) were nailed onto the heel. Later the calks (small screws) were replaced by nail holes.

Foot note

Chubby Checker and Paul Keating, former Prime Minister of Australia, were often photographed wearing basket weave shoes. No one is sure if they hoped to fend off the evil eye or just like wearing very comfortable shoes.

Read more at:
Sofya la Rus, Mka Lisa Kies Footwear in Early Russia

Reviewed 7/02/2016

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