What Is the Sole of a Shoe?

The History and Modern Types of Shoe Outsoles

Sole of a lost shoe in the Exclusion Zone
© Melanie Reffes

The sole of a shoe, also known as the outsole, is the bottom part of the shoe that comes in direct contact with the ground. Shoe soles are made from a variety of different materials, including natural rubber, leather, polyurethane and PVC compounds. The material used to make the sole depends upon the style and purpose of the shoe.

Take dancing shoes as an example. For a ballroom dancer, a shoe with a smooth leather sole is ideal because it's easier to glide and turn on the dance floor. A trail runner, however, might prefer a running shoe with a lightweight sole that provides support and traction.

Soles are designed to be durable and long-lasting, but they will wear out eventually and are typically the first part of a shoe to go. Most shoes are easily resoled at a shoe repair shop.

History of the Shoe Sole

The first shoes were made out of natural materials, so the outsoles were very thin. American Indians made soft-soled moccasins out of animal hides. During the Middle Ages shoes began to feature soles with hardier materials such as leather and jute, a tough fiber made from plant stems. Shoemaking continued to evolve. In the 1600s shoe soles were almost always made out of leather, which is still the standard in fine leather dress shoes to this day.

Up until the Industrial Revolution shoemaking was done entirely by hand. It was an extremely time-consuming process because the leather soles had to be meticulously hand-stitched onto shoes. Leather is a very sturdy material, which is good for durability, but its stiffness makes it very difficult material to work with. The invention of the machine revolutionized the shoemaking process. By the turn of the century, shoemaking had become almost completely mechanized.

Types of Modern Outsoles

The soles of men's and women's dress shoes are typically made from high-quality leather, rubber or a combination of the two. Casual, everyday wear shoes and work shoes often feature soles made out of natural rubber or polyurethane.

Soles can be made out of one material or different types. For example, an all-leather sole might be a standard feature of a fine dress shoe, but it hardly offers any traction. Because of this, many dress shoes feature a leather sole in the front part of the shoe and a rubber sole in the heel for added traction.

Certain types of soles offer more traction than others due to specific materials or designs. The material used in the sole is based upon the intended purpose of the shoe. For example, athletic shoe soles feature many different types of materials that vary depending upon how the shoe will be used.

Shoes worn to play soccer, baseball, golf and football feature cleats or spikes that dig into the ground and provide much-needed traction. Shoes worn for basketball, wrestling, volleyball and rock climbing have rubber soles that provide greater grip. Cycling shoes are very stiff and sturdy. Hiking boots have soles that are thick, waterproof and offer traction.