Crackowes and poulaines are two different names for decorated leather shoes with very long, pointed toes, which were very popular among fashionable young men of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century. At their most extreme, crackowes or poulaines (also sometimes called pistachios) had toes that extended twenty-four inches beyond the wearer's feet and had to be supported by thin chains that connected the toe to the knee.
Shoes with pointed, upturned toes had been introduced to Europe by the soldiers of the Crusades, a long campaign of religious wars that lasted from 1090 through 1300. The crusaders had traveled from Europe to Palestine (modern-day Israel and the Palestinian territories), in the Middle East. When they returned home, they brought back to Europe with them many things they had discovered in the East, such as spices, fine fabrics, and styles of clothing that were quite foreign to westerners. The Oriental-style pointed slipper became popular among both men and women. As fashionable dressers began to extend the style, the points on their shoes grew longer and longer.
Many extreme fashions became popular during the last half of the fourteenth century. At that time Europe was just beginning to recover from the devastation of the Black Death, an epidemic of a disease called bubonic plague that had killed millions of people across the continent between 1347 and 1350. Those who survived those grim years wanted to feel hope and joy in life, and they sought frivolous fashions that would cheer them. The long, delicately pointed shoes fit right in. By the end of the 1300s the shoes had come to be called crackowes and poulaines after the city of Krákow, Poland, because they were introduced in England by Polish nobles who came to visit Anne, the Polish wife of the British king Richard II (1367–1400). The long, pointed shoes worn by Polish noblemen were the first that had been seen in the British court, and soon they were widely imitated.
The pointed toes of crackowes or poulaines varied in length from six inches to twenty-four inches, and gentlemen often stuffed the toes with hay or inserted whalebone supports to hold up the long ends. As well as showing that the wearer was at the height of fashion, crackowes also showed that those who wore them belonged to a wealthy leisure class, since little work could be done while wearing the long-toed shoes. Many conservatives, or those who emphasize traditional institutions and resist change, as well as church leaders and political rulers, considered the new fashion ridiculous and disgraceful, calling the long, pointed toes "devil's fingers." Edward III (1312–1377), who ruled England from 1327 to 1377, even made a law that limited shoe length based on social class: common people could only wear a six-inch toe, while gentlemen could wear a fifteen-inch toe, and nobility even longer. However, laws can seldom defeat a popular fashion fad, and the extremely long-toed crackowes remained in style until 1410. The shoes then became slightly more conservative, but long, pointed toes remained fashionable for wealthy young men into the 1480s.
Cosgrave, Bronwyn. The Complete History of Costume and Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.