Friday, March 5, 2010

A Closer Look at: Kabkabs

Every so often eBay delights with an item of genuine historical costume interest, and such is the case with the pair of 19th-century wooden shoes from the Ottoman empire, inlayed with silver and mother-of-pearl, above.

Described by the seller as "harem clogs", they are properly known as kabkabs due to the clopping sound they make while walking. And while such shoes are associated with ladies of leisure, they would not ordinarily be worn in the seraglio (where slippers or bare feet were the norm), but instead in the hammams, or baths, where the elevated platforms would safeguard delicate feet from the hot floor stones, as well as from runoff from the steamed and scrubbed clientele.

The kabkabs above are missing the nailed-on straps of leather over the insteps--given the humidity they were routinely exposed to this is not terribly surprising. And, as kabkabs go, these are of modest height.

The most wonderful representations of these shoes in situ are found, I believe, in the works of French neoclassical artist Jean-Léon Gérôme, whose oriental scenes often centered on the baths, the better to show lithesome exotics in a state of steamy undress. In the scene below, the washing of a ivory-skinned lady by an ebony-skinned attendant is calculated to push all the buttons of his Parisian patrons, but Gérôme's depictions of the kabkabs nearby? Spot on.

(Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Bath, Fine Art Museum of San Francisco, image from, many thanks)


  1. Hi Christa,
    Do you recall what these sold for?

  2. Hey, I really liked this post! Where did you get all the information about the kabkabs? Thanks!