I fell head over heels in love with all things Roman esque back in 2000, when Russell Crowe breathed life into the rugged, rough-around-the edges and somewhat romantic character, General Maximus Decimus Meridius in Ridley Scott’s epic drama,”Gladiator.”
Despite being a brave hero and a loyal soldier, Maximus was betrayed and sold into slavery (it was a political thing) and within minutes, he lost everything that mattered to him: his wife, son, home, and status in the Roman Empire. Even though it was a swift and brutal loss, he took it bravely and if I had to guess, it was probably because he looked like a beautiful badass while doing it. At least, during those two-plus, gorgeously glorious cinematic hours.
Matter of fact, everyone in the movie looked nothing short of spectacular, thanks to British Costume designer Janty Yates. Her designs were such a dazzling display of decadence, they spilled off the big screen and splashed onto fashion runways everywhere. Eventually, the Greek chic look became mainstream and Janty would go onto win her first Academy Award.
I’m not saying Janty’s styling sparked a toga resurgence, but I do believe she singlehandedly brought back the Gladiator shoe-craze and not because she focused on the footwear, per se. Instead, she unlocked the door and reopened our imaginations to the rich textures, bold materials and intricate accessories that the Romans were known for.
Over the next fourteen years, Gladiator styles (everything from ribbon braids, one shoulder maxi dresses, bold arm cuffs and gold wired earrings,) would fade in-and-out of fashion, but the shoe, or some version of it, would make a lasting impression. Especially this Spring and Summer. The leather-bound, head-turning, leg-climbing, sexy sandal has become a strapping wardrobe staple for fashionistas everywhere.
It makes sense, too, given the shoe’s rich history. The Gladiator sandal became popular around 1st Century BC, when the Romans practically dominated the world. It started when their armies invaded foreign countries and capture the strongest men in the area. They’d immediately send them back to Rome and force them into a life of hard labor.
The ones who didn’t die and worked hard were called slaves and if they earned their keep, they would become part of Rome’s entertainment industry. Every month or so, the city would host something called ‘The Games,’ which consisted of violent fighting matches (described by historians as awe-inspiring, opulent and theatrical.)
‘The Games’ which were held in large coliseums and watched by thousands of people, consisted of slaves battling one another to the death. If that wasn’t enough, wild animals or condemned criminals were used as distractions during matches to ensure at least one, if not multiple, dramatic, gory, blood-ravaged deaths.
If a certain slave was particularly good at fighting and managed to stay alive, he was bequeathed the title of ‘Gladiator,’ (which actually means swordsman.) His success in the ring would earn him special rewards, like extra food or protective clothing to help him during his next match. A helmet for the head, armor for the chest and leather bound shoes (to protect the shins and legs from injury,) were common rewards. Hence, Gladiator footwear.
The original sandal, as we like to call it, was more of a shoe/boot that laced its way up the warrior’s leg, giving him the ability to have a strong, steadfast stance to absorb his opponents jabs, but at the same time, allowing him the all-important agility and flexibility to fight back. It also guarded against flesh wounds that would cause pain and confusion, leading to bad decisions in the ring and ultimately, a swift and unspectacular death. The style in which you died was important. The more dramatic, the better.
Folklore has it if a Gladiator managed to stay alive, year after year (match after match,) he would eventually be granted his freedom and become a true, revered Roman hero. After a bit of research, though, I found this not to be true. In fact, it’s nothing more than a romantic tale. The truth is, most Gladiators died as prisoners and never knew the peace and freedom they fought for. Promising emancipation was the only way for a captor to engage a Gladiator’s spirit, to keep his head and heart in the game.
The good news is, like most things, the Romans and their Games fell out of style, especially as Christianity grasped hold of the world. Finally, the fights were perceived as gauche, barbaric and inhumane. As the Games became a distant memory, the plight of the Gladiator became that of epic legend, told through tales like Maximus’ and expressed through fashion trends like “The Graduated Gladiator.”
Still, to this day, “The Graduated Gladiator” is the kind of shoe that’s bold, brave and beautiful, just like the Gladiators themselves. This season, I’m especially drawn to the mid ankle Gladiator bootie (pictured in the blog.) Mine are from LAMB by Gwen Stefani.
I love the way the popular multi-numbered straps are delicately paired down. It makes the typical stand-out style sleek and a tad more understated. The etched leather and metal grommet detailing also gives the shoe a more interesting personality. Usually, I would pair this kind of footwear with a simple dress, but if you keep everything in the same color scheme, wearing it with something unexpected, even textured (like the long, black netted tank dress pictured in the blog,) you can really elevate the look.
Full Gladiator heels and flats are equally as fashionable heading into summer. Recently, I spied an extra-tall pair of gold Stuart Weitzman Gladiators. They’re amazing and a must-have, if you’re looking for the quintessential regal Roman look.
By the way, Maximus was indeed granted his freedom, but only in death. The last scene of “Gladiator” is also its first. Maximus is dying after losing a grandiose gaming match. As he drifts away, he starts walking home through a beautiful, sun-drenched field, the wind lightly blowing his hair. His hands, in a familiar pattern, are delicately drifting atop a plethora of golden wheat. When life finally leaves him, he is whole again, without pain and he finally finds peace and reunites with his family.
That scene is burned into my brain, simply because of the drama, romance and beauty of it all. It says so much, without saying anything at all. The images, styling and fashioning of Rome are what make “The Graduated Gladiator” one of my favorite things.
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photography by tod p/t4twophotography
Hair & Make-up by Odette Hernandez
Editor: Matthew Auerbach