For Those Who Dare to Dream

The story of a shoemaker, a king, and the power of a vision

Louis XIV had great legs. He knew it; the court knew it — heck the entire world knew it. Of course, he took the appropriate steps to keep everyone informed, and he worked hard to keep those gams glorious. What was his secret? Well, dancing if you really want to know. In fact, first position, second position — all that stuff started with Louis. But that’s a story for a different day. Yes, Louis loved his legs. Look at me, he said, I am the Sun King! I am the state — and the state has really great calves.

Louis showing off the splendor of his legs (1701)

Meanwhile somewhere in Bordeaux

Business was booming at the Loup Botte (wolf in boots). In fact, Nicholas Lestage had 20 workers in his shop. That was pretty good for a place like Bordeaux, but Nicholas had a vision and it transcended the boundaries of his town. In his dreams, both men and women coveted his shoes. “Oh, are your shoes from Lestage?” people would ask, and the lucky wearer would smile at their friends envy.

It was 1659 when Louis visited Bordeaux. He was engaged to be married and rumor had it he was brooding. As so often happened in those days the woman he was about to marry was not the woman he loved. How unbearable would be the bitterness of their parting? And so he came for one last visit. Of course, the story spread up and down the gossip chain until the news came to the ears of Monsieur Lestage. Wheels turned until he hammered out a plan on the anvil of his mind. A broad smile crossed the shoemaker's face and he immediately set to work.

Honey colored silk, taffeta lining, all adorned with lilies lavishly set off with gold. Nicholas worked and worked until he hit perfection. He had created a pair of pumps, so exquisite, so breath-taking, he was sure they would soothe the ache in anyone's heart, especially one attached to a king so in love with his legs.

Louis in 1673

And the verdict is . . .

And so the gift was presented to the king. Gently he lifted them from the box, gently he slipped in his foot. Nicholas watched with nervous anticipation. A sigh of pleasure rose from the lips of the king. Even without knowing the king's measurements, Nicholas pumps fit perfectly. The effect on the royal legs was nothing short of stunning. Louis became besotted with his new shoes and paid more attention to them at his wedding than he did to his new wife. It was said he was “ravaged by the works of Lestage.”

“ I love you,” the king told Nicholas, “won’t you be my shoe man — for always?”

He accepted without hesitation.

Nicholas’ audacity to dream, his courage to try, had earned him the title of Master shoemaker of His Majesty. He alone would shoe the great king, and provide his foot gear from province to province. He was even honored with a coat of arms which included a gold boot and gold crown. The fame of Lestage grew far and wide and his reputation reached Paris long before he even arrived. His brother shoemakers greeted him mostly with honor, sometimes with pride, always with a bit of envy. Every shoemaker wanted to be Lestage.

Louis in 1685

Never stop believing

Perhaps people thought the Kings pumps were the pinnacle of Nicholas’ artistry, maybe his creativity was exhausted. Four years passed and nothing as extravagant as the Kings pumps came into view. Yet all that time Nicholas was working until finally he presented the king with one final work of genius. A pair of boots, the leather of which appeared to have never been pierced by a needle and thread. Courtiers, shoemakers, lovers, everyone was in awe of the magnificence of His Majesty’s boots. A hundred times the boots were examined, a hundred times the answer was the same — the king's boots were seamless. It was declared neither antiquity nor the sun had ever seen the likes of Lestage's boots. Their structure could not have been conceived by man, certainly, it was divine. Quite appropriate for a man who ruled by divine right.

The King was enamored with his celestial boots. So much so he forbid LeStage to make them for anyone else or even to reveal his methods. Feasts and honors were heaped upon the miracle maker. He was flattered by prophecies that his design would shine through the centuries, and the name of the boot would fill the universe.

Unfortunately, this was a triumph his brother shoemakers could not bear. The success of this great master brought out their wickedness and malice until Nicholas was forced to leave Paris. Even in Bordeaux, they talked against him. Sorcerer! Enchanter! Spawn of the Devil! They yelled, because no matter how hard they tried no one could replicate his work.

Despite the ill-wishers, Lestage lived out the rest of his life in tranquility, practicing his art, and dying at a ripe old age with his reputation untarnished. In fact, about twelve years after he crafted the miraculous boots, a book of poems honoring the achievement was published. A portrait of the shoemaker even appeared in the gallery of the king. Inscribed below it were the words:

He of whom thou see in this portrait is a miracle of his age: after the boots that he made, mind and art could go no further.”

Notes and Sources:

  • Louis was an absolute monarch — all power resided with him. He believed his power came directly from God, or divine right. This led to his declaration “l’etat, c’est moi”, I am the state.
  • The lover Louis was brooding over was Maria Mancini
  • It would be 100 years before anyone knew the secret of Lestage’s boots. The method was not as divinely inspired as some would have liked to believe. Lestage used the same construction as Alaskan Inuits. They essentially made seamless boots out of complete bear paws — claws and all. Lestage used calf legs instead of bears then tanned and dressed them so they were all fancy-like for the king.

Lives of Illustrious Shoemakers, William Winks 1883

Delightful History of Ye Gentle Craft: an illustrated history of feet Costume Samuel Smith Campion 1876

The Art of the Shoe, Marie-Josèphe Bossan

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