History of Shoes: 19th and 20th Century Women's Footwear

Updated on December 2, 2019
Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores's interest in fashion history dates from her teenage years when vintage apparel was widely available in thrift stores.

Front lace up boots
Front lace up boots | Source

The Industrial Revolution Changed Footwear

In the 19th-century trade and manufacturing processes brought innovations to shoes that were both practical and attractive. Before the mass production of the Industrial Revolution, shoes for both right and left feet were the same. The 1880s saw the beginning of shoes made specifically for the right or left foot. All shoes had, in the past, been hand made by shoemakers, but new technologies brought about standardized sizes and widths.

Due to changes in manufacturing, shoes became both more available and affordable. As technology advanced, women were able to obtain more pairs of shoes and a greater variety of footwear. Manufacturers introduced shoes for sport, for specific athletic activities, and shoes that could match any outfit. And after a disappearance of a thousand years, due to modesty constraints, the sandal came back in a big way.

Vintage wooden shoe forms used in the production of footwear.
Vintage wooden shoe forms used in the production of footwear. | Source
Though a painting of a woman in the early part of the 19th century,  her shoes would not look out of place today.
Though a painting of a woman in the early part of the 19th century, her shoes would not look out of place today. | Source

Women's Shoes of the 19th Century

While small, delicate pumps were worn for evening wear and dressy occasions, the primary footwear of the 19th century was the boot. As factories sprung up during the Industrial Revolution, a new longing for the natural landscape drew the elite to country homes. Walking became a popular recreational activity and boots became a necessity.

Adelaides were British, side-laced boots.

Chelsea boots were elastic-sided boots that were easy to slip on. During the 1960s they were often called Beatle boots.

Balmorals were front laced boots that were popular for men and women and have retained their popularity to this day. Balmorals are different than other front lace boots in that a seam divides the upper and lower part of the boot. The upper half of the boot is often made of a different material (suede or heavy fabric) than the lower, leather part.

Despite the popularity of delicate kid slippers for dress, the strength and durability of boots made them a mainstay for nearly a century. Button boots were popular mid-century due to their tight fit, which made them attractive, flattering to the foot and ankle, and very elegant.

The early 1800s saw low heels (as shown above) which began to rise as the century wore on.

In the late 19th century, the United States was able to produce shoes cheaply and became a world leader in the production of footwear well into the 20th century.

Balmoral boot circa 1940s You can see the seam that divides the upper and lower part of the boot.
Balmoral boot circa 1940s You can see the seam that divides the upper and lower part of the boot. | Source

Wood Soled Shoes: Clogs, Pattens, and Sabot

Clogs, pattens, and the French sabot had been worn since the Middle Ages by workers and peasants. The high wood soled shoes lifted the foot above cold roads, as well as mud, puddles, and dampness.

Pattens were a type of slip-on over-shoe consisting of wood or metal that strapped on over a shoe or boot for walking outdoors in wet weather. They could also be worn for indoor chores such as wet-mopping a floor. In Elizabeth Gaskells' famous biography of Charlotte Bronte, she mentions that Charlotte's Aunt Branwell wore her pattens indoors because of the cold stone floors, creating quite a racket when she walked.

Tradition has it that irate workers used their wood soled shoes (sabot) to wreck machinery in factories, giving us the word 'sabotage.'

Clog - an old shoe style that was revived in the 1960s
Clog - an old shoe style that was revived in the 1960s | Source

History of the Sneaker

An early form of the sneaker or tennis shoe was developed in England. The 1830s saw the introduction of shoes made by fusing canvas with vulcanized rubber. This treated rubber was an improvement over plain rubber which cracked and became brittle with cold. Called 'sand shoes' because they were worn at the beach, the upper shoe was fastened with a T strap and buckle.

In the mid 19th century, the 'croquet shoe' had a vulcanized rubber sole but was fastened with laces. These early sneakers were more comfortable than stiff soled leather boots, and were cooler, thanks to the cotton canvas uppers.

In the 1880s, the rubber sole was brought up in the front over the toe to prevent the big toe from tearing the canvas.

It was not until 1917 that the word 'sneaker' came into use by advertising, the term coined because they were noiseless in comparison to leather shoes.

Sneakers, popular sports, casual, and daywear shoes evolved in the 20th century into many types of athletic shoes. Keds, America's first mass-marketed sneaker appeared n 1917, the same year that Marquis Converse introduced the Converse All-Star, a high topped basketball shoe.

Charles H. Taylor, a well-known basketball player, liked Converse's sneaker so much, that he became involved in the marketing and promotion of the shoes. In 1923, his name appeared on the shoe's ankle. People nicknamed the popular athletic shoe Chucks, after Taylor, a style that is widely popular today.

Converse All Stars
Converse All Stars | Source
Spectater Shoes
Spectater Shoes | Source

Early 20th-Century Shoes

For most of the 19th century, shoes came in black, brown, white, and tan. But in the 1920s, what with shorter skirts and highly visible shoes, evening footwear was produced in colors, though the old, neutral colors were a mainstay for day wear.

As hemlines rose during and after World War I, the gap between the boot top and skirt appeared unsightly, and women began to wear Mary Janes with low, curved heels.

Bathing shoes began to bear more of the instep and in the late 1920s, low heeled sandals were worn with beach pajamas.

Despite the Great Depression, a shoe fashion explosion took place in the 1930s, with spectator pumps, oxfords, and brogues. Sandals, worn in ancient times, had slipped out of fashion for over a thousand years because they were thought to be immodest. But, the 1930s saw the return of the sandal. Platform types of shoes were revived with cork soled wedgies. High heels bared the instep in cute little shoes made of leather or silk.

The outbreak of World War II resulted in restrictions on the use of the leather needed by the military. Wood, cork soles, and uppers made of fake leather, canvas, and raffia filled in for the lack of leather. The rationing of materials for shoe production also created a demand for sandals and espadrilles, as well as peep-toe, or open-toed pumps. The alternative styles remained popular for the rest of the century and on into the 21st century.

Sight changes in women's dress shoes included taller heels and the revival of the Italian heel or stiletto, popular into the late 1950s.

Flapper - notice her Mary Jane style shoes, chunky heels with a slight curve
Flapper - notice her Mary Jane style shoes, chunky heels with a slight curve | Source
Modern platform clogs - very 1970s
Modern platform clogs - very 1970s | Source

Shoes in the Late 20th and Early 21st Century

In the 1960s, a new desire for comfort and healthy feet damaged the popularity of high heels. Tall stiletto heels shoved the foot forward, pressing into the pointy toes and caused bunions and hammertoes. Walking proved dangerous in the high heels and women turned and broke ankles.

Boots made a comeback as well with pull on Cossack type boots and short white boots called Go-Go boots, worn with mini-skirts for dancing.

The 1970s saw the return of the wedgie and platform type shoes. But unlike in the past, fashion did not dictate a few particular styles. Women wore all kinds of shoes, drawn by new advances in comfort as well as celebrity mass marketing campaigns.

The same applies today. Though pointy-toed stilettos have returned, all styles are in vogue. Retro revival provides a view into the history of shows. Visit almost any shoe store to see Balmoral type front lace-up boots, gladiator sandals, flip-flops, polka-dot peep-toe pumps, moccasins, clogs, and Chuck Taylors in all colors and variations.

Questions & Answers

  • When were high button shoes common? I have an old photo that I am trying to date.

    As high button shoes or boots were in style for over 30 years, from the 1880s until World War I, you should look for other clues to date your photograph. Learn about distinctive hemlines, skirt shape and width, necklines, shoulder lines, sleeve shapes, and hairstyles to understand when the picture was taken.

    As you narrow down the approximate date for the picture, look for images online that date to decades. Look up women's fashions of the late 1880s, then the early 1890s, mid-1890s and so on. Make sure the images are the right date as Google images, for instance, often offer up images that are not quite in your search parameter. Check out significant details of the dated garments. You will see changes over time that indicate approximate dates within, say, five years.

    If you are not familiar with historic garments, this may take a bit of time. Check out sites that describe the fashions of the decades in question for a closer look at style changes over the years.


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    • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

      Dolores Monet 

      2 months ago from East Coast, United States

      Hi Caitlin - the boots shown at the top are not antique and are of little to no value. The value of your grandmother's shoes are sentimental so buying a similar one would not be the same. Just keep the one! It would be hard to find a match. As for the C - 23 you mention in your other question, at first I thought it was a size conversion (to European or Asian sizes) but the numbers don't fit.

    • profile image

      Caitlin Worley 

      2 months ago

      I have a pair of shoes similar to the ones in the first picture in this article. My granny gave them to me about 8 or 9 years ago and sadly I lost one of them. I was about 12 or 13 at that point and I did not apreciate things with any history behind them. If you have any advice on how to get ahold of a matching shoe to complete the set it would be greatly apreciated.

    • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

      Dolores Monet 

      3 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Lynne Robb - I tried to do a little research on that product but could not really find anything myself. Love those old products. I once visited a shop filled with old soap, old flour sacks, and several cleaning products, all from at least 70 years ago, all in pristine condition.

    • profile image

      Lynne Robb 

      3 years ago

      I recently acquired an antique sewing machine, and in one of the drawers I found a tiny bottle of Paris Fashion White Shoe Soap. Would you happen to have any idea who manufactured it, or what decade is is from? I'm having no luck finding info on my own.

    • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

      Dolores Monet 

      3 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Hi Connie - I have not approved your comment as you have left some personal information and you might not want that out on a public forum. I could not possibly date the shoe that you found. While I have researched the general history of shoes and footwear, I am not qualified to date an old shoe from a photograph. There are many types of shoes that have been made continuously for many long years. It would be hard to guess. A shoe would likely deteriorate quickly in a wooded area what with temperature changes, rain, and snow.

    • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

      Dolores Monet 

      4 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Hi Susan - what an exiting project! Balmoral boots were created in the mid 1800s. Named after the famous British estate purchased in 1852 by Prince Edward, the style was quickly adapted for women and remained popular for some time. They are still popular.

      I am thinking that if much of the boot was visible, the skirt hem would be a bit higher than in the Victorian era. Skirt hems rose around 1914 and would expose more of the boot.

      Other keys to date the photo would include dress styles. I am fond of checking out Google images. You could type in "photos of women in _" and compare boot styles as well as modes of dress. Good luck in your research!

    • profile image

      Susan Saunders 

      4 years ago

      I am trying to date some old photos based on the women's clothing and came upon your post/s in my research. It looks like the women in the photos are wearing Balmoral boots that go higher than yours pictured in this post. I believe the my photos are pre 1900. Do you know if the balmoral style boot was popular after the turn of the century? Or most fashionable pre? Love all your posts, btw.

    • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

      Dolores Monet 

      4 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Sue Bailey - I see some beautiful shoes in the stores, glamorous and artistic. But I see few people actually wearing them! Haha! Thanks!

      Theseshoes - thanks! Your comment does not appear because I don't include links unless they provide valuable information not mentioned in the article.

      karen m. - I have not allowed your comment because you added your email. I don't think that's the best idea as it may cause you grief. Nuts abound. Funny, I was just reading one of the Little House books to someone and the Ingalls girls had made a pair of "bed shoes" for one of the sisters. The books were written in the early 20th century, but the story was set and based on Laura Ingalls Wilder's memories from 1880. Set in the Dakota territory, they were a long way from Europe but there you are.


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