The difference between mules and clogs can be significant or insignificant depending upon who is defining them. Throw in the third term, slides, and people may spend some time wondering why they just can’t all be called shoes. Yet looking at any shoe store online, most shoppers will find these shoes classed together, while slides may be classified elsewhere.
The typical clog may be thought of as a closed toed wooden (or other) bottom shoe with a heel no more than a couple of inches high. These shoes are backless, unless they are clog boots, which may be mid-thigh length and have wooden soles. Various countries have different names for them, including the French sabot, which dates to approximately the 18th century.
At around the same time, the French also developed shoes that are now often referred to as mules, and these represent a difference between mules and clogs. Instead of the sturdy wooden heel, these typically had a high heel, and may have been modeled on a much earlier shoe worn by Roman senators. These were called calceus mulleus, and the name may have been shortened to mules by English speakers. Hence the primary difference between mules and clogs in early days was that clogs were likely to be worn by working people, and mules were fancier and favored by the aristocracy. Ultimately, mules become more associated as common dresswear among prostitutes, and it would take several centuries to rescue their reputation.
The main distinction between mules and clogs (dressy and workmanlike) may still exist in some parts of the world. Yet other people simply use the names interchangeably, and things like heel height or degree of dressiness are given little consideration. Still a closed-toe shoe that has fancier heel is more likely to be called a mule.
These definitions of mules and clogs wouldn’t be complete without considering shoes called slides. Sometimes people incorrectly define mules as backless shoes that can feature an open toe. Actually, this description is more appropriately attributed to slides. Slides generally have open toes, and can be either dressy or simple depending upon design. To confuse matters though, sometimes either mules or clogs are called slides because the foot slides in, and no consideration is given to whether the toe is opened or closed.
In lieu of a true definition, it’s best to just view these shoes as ones that come in a variety of styles. Backless shoes can have distinct advantages, since they are so easy to put on. They also have some disadvantages, including the fact that an unsecured back may occasionally slip or not provide enough stability for walking long distances.