Wooden Shoes & Clogs: the Flip Flops of the Middle Ages

Clogs, or wooden shoes are one of those items that are a true symbol of Dutch culture. And they indeed make for fun souvenirs if you come and visit us, were it only for the fact that windmills are a bit harder to take back home.

But did you know that the wooden shoe is really just an advanced middle aged flip flop?!

Wooden flip flops

The history of the Dutch Clogs – in Holland known as klompen – goes back to the Middle Ages. In that time period many people wore sandals made out of a material truly abundant in the swampy area that is currently Holland: wood! The abundance of wood becomes very apparent once you know that the name Holland actually derives from Holt, meaning wood, Land.

So making sandals out of wood was pretty straightforward. A piece of wood, shaped in the form of a foot with a leather strap on the top made for some mean middle age flip flops.

Wooden shoes…or wooden flip flops

Some clever mind then came up with the brilliant idea to create a more convenient and solid shoe. Extra wood was added under the sandals, an embankment at the heel was created and also the instep got a wooden enclosement. Basically it meant the entire foot got enclosed in wood to make the shoes sturdier, keep your feet warm in winter and cool in summer, but also to reduce the amount of contact with the muddy streets of those days.

Initially this wooden ‘advanced flip flop’ was constructed out of several pieces of wood that got engineered together to form the wooden shoes.

Old wooden shoes assembled out of five individual pieces of wood

Old wooden shoes assembled out of five individual pieces of wood

Rise to popularity of the Wooden Shoe

The new type of wooden shoe became very popular in the fifteenth century not only in Holland but basically all over Europe.

Among the peasantry, wooden shoes provided a cheap kind of footwear because of the durability and protection they offered their wearers. Wooden clogs provided a hard casing around the foot that did not break when trampled by farm animals or hit by heavy tools. In walking through wet or muddy areas, wooden clogs provided a waterproof form of foot protection. In urban areas, wooden shoes protected feet from direct contact with street rubbish and waste.

It was not before long that another revolutionary improvement to the wooden shoe was made.

The wooden shoe makers started experimenting with the fabrication of a wooden shoe made out of one piece of wood. These were the first clogs or wooden shoes as we know them still today.

The clog came in all shapes and sizes, usually with a pointed front form but later in the more familiar round shape.

Pointy wooden shoes

Pointy wooden shoes

During weekdays most people would wear unpainted clogs. But for weekend church outings people would step it up one notch and most often wear black painted clogs with all sorts of motifs. There were also clogs with sharp metal points mounted under the sole with which one could walk on ice without slipping.

wooden shoes with cleats to walk the ice

wooden shoes with cleats to walk the ice

Clog making as a skill

Making a wooden shoe was a craft in itself. Clog makers were seen as highly skilled people enjoying a great reputation. Making wooden shoes was almost an artform and most of the ‘artists’ were members of the so-called clogs guild.

Wooden shoes are usually made of willow or popular (the tree) wood.

Contemporary Clogs: 3 Million pair a year

Approximately 3 million pairs of Dutch clogs are produced each year. They are sold throughout the Netherlands. A large part of the market is for the tourist industry were clogs sell like hot cakes. Most of these clogs are painted yellow which is most often contributed to the colour of cheese.

Yellow wooden shoes in a Dutch tourist shop

Yellow wooden shoes in a Dutch tourist shop

They also make for a good addition to a traditional Dutch outfit during celebrations or other dress up occasions
Gay Parade 2011 in Maspalomas

Clogs have found their way in a whole lot other diverse uses. From boats, flower pots, wall decorations, playgrounds to comfy indoor house slippers.

comfy indoor slippers

comfy indoor slippers

wooden shoe boat cruising the Amsterdam canals

wooden shoe boat cruising the Amsterdam canals

the wooden shoe flower pot

the wooden shoe flower pot

a wooden shoe playground

a wooden shoe playground

Colorful wall decoration

Colorful wall decoration

CE approved Safety Shoes

However, the clog is still used as the preferred sturdy footwear on the Dutch countryside among farmers and gardeners. One of the reasons being that a solid wooden shoe has great protective features for the feet.

The traditional all-wooden Dutch clogs have been officially accredited as safety shoes with the CE mark and can withstand almost any penetration including sharp objects and concentrated acids. They are actually safer than steelcapped protective shoes in some circumstances, as the wood cracks rather than dents in extreme accidents, allowing easy removal of the clog and not continued pressure on the toes by the (edge of the) steel nose

Regular clog wearer also swear it is the most comfortable footwear available, it just takes some time for your feet to get used to them.

Biggest Clog in the world

Logically we, the Dutch, also had to create the biggest clog in the world. It can be found in a town named Enter in the Dutch province of Overijssel.

The world’s biggest clog measures a whopping 4.03 meter long, 1.71 meter wide and 1.69 meter high. Since the 26th of June 1991 the clog got its official title as the world’s biggest by the Guinness Book of Records.

The town of Enter has, apart from the biggest clog, also the second biggest clog and a clog museum.

Biggest Wooden shoe in the world made out of one piece of wood in Enter (Overrijssel)

Biggest Wooden shoe in the world made out of one piece of wood in Enter (Overrijssel)

Some Wooden Shoe Fun Facts

  • The word ‘sabotage’ has a direct relation to the clog. The French word for clog is ‘sabot’ and employees who got fired because their boss had replaced them with a machine would throw their clogs in the machine to disrupt it.

  • The biggest wooden shoe factory in the world – Klompenfabriek Nijhuis BV is located in Beltrum, Holland.

  • The International Wooden Shoe Museum is located in Eelde, Netherlands

  • There are two towns in Holland that are called De Klomp (the clog)

  • Crocs, the plastic/foam made colourful sandal shoes were derived as a modern version of the clog.

  • In 2011, the Ghanan King Nana Okrukata V received a pair of Dutch clogs from the Dutch Akwadaa foundation. He liked them so much that he immediately ordered 10.000 pairs for his policitcal party, the New Patriotic Party (NPP).

What do you think?

Our Correspondent
Cult Netherlands correspondent
Marc - Weert

Wondering wanderer of the world! Avid cyclist, ski/snowboard guru & passionate ping-pong player. Lover of both good & cheap wines, random facts, rocking chairs and singing in the shower. I love to drink myself silly in the company of other people ...

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