Does this shoe look familiar? Recognized by many as a shoe by the American company TOMS, this comfy calzado (shoe) is actually the Argentine alpargata. Although alpargata is literally the Spanish word for “espadrille,” here in Argentina the name is associated with this distinctive style rather than its literal meaning.
Traditionally, an espadrille is a shoe in which the sole is made from plant fibers, such as jute or hemp, which have been braided or woven together. Today, though, most espadrilles will have at least a partially rubber sole to increase durability, but still feature woven or braided rope detailing.
Here in Argentina, though, this defining characteristic of the espadrille no longer defines the alpargata. The alpargata is recognizable and distinguishable from other shoes by its shape and form alone. True to its roots, though, the alpargata is a simple, comfortable shoe that is popular all over the world, typically made with a rubber sole and canvas upper.
But the Argentine alpargata had a long journey before it evolved into the shoe that is so well known and loved today. The word alpargata (“espadrille”) is derived from the Arab word “albargat”, which essentially means “sandal”. It’s believed that the espadrille style of shoe is a descendant of the ancient Egyptian sandal. Upon their arrival in Egypt, the Romans improved upon the woven sandal by adding a top part to better protect their feet. This footwear then spread throughout the Mediterranean world, eventually arriving in Spain where they evolved into their modern form. After cooling their heels (bad pun intended) for a few centuries, these shoes made the journey to the New World in the sixteenth century.
Upon arrival in South America, these shoes became very popular among the rural people because they were both comfortable and inexpensive. Before the arrival of alpargatas, many people wore botas de potro (literally “stallion boots”) which were essentially poorly fitted leather stockings that were tied onto the feet. In comparison to their leather predecessor, alpargatas featured a light, breathable, and flexible sole made of plant fibers that molded to the shape of each foot.
By the mid-19th century botas de potro had fallen into disuse and the alpargata had become the shoe of the common man. With a wave of fresh immigrants and the advent of industrialization towards the end of the 19th century, the popularity of the shoe only continued to grow, eventually becoming the modern Argentine alpargata.
Today the alpargata retains its famous and recognizable shape, but the materials vary from one shoe to the next. Many are made with canvas upper and can be found in a variety of colors and prints, while others are made of synthetic materials like nylon. Some shoes still make use of the espadrille-style sole, but many are now made with a more durable rubber sole, or a combination of the two. While many things about this shoe have changed over the years, there are a few things that have stayed constant: it’s still comfortable, still affordable, and still one of the most practical shoes on the Argentine market.
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