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

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.

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.

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 boots

Balmoral boots

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 was 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

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 sneakers 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

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 expose 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 coming into vogue. 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

Rise of the Casual Shoe

Sport and casual shoes grew in popularity for streetwear. In the 1940s and '50s, young women wore saddle oxfords for daywear and to dances. While in the past, a dance usually meant a dress-up occasion, the trend toward comfort led to dancing in sneakers or saddles.

The saddle oxford, first offered in 1906 for sports was the ubiquitous casual shoe from the 1920s to the '50s. The boxy two-tone shoe featured a white leather upper with a contrasting saddle over the top of the foot.

The loafer was a leather slip-on shoe originally worn as a fisherman's shoe in Norway. Introduced in the United States in the 1930s, the comfortable flat shoe evolved into the penny loafer which featured a slit leather strip across the top of the foot. First offered for men, the shoe became popular with teens and housewives in the 1950s and part of the preppy look of the late 20th century.

During the 1960s, as people became more creative with fashion, young women wore casual shoes and boots. Sneakers evolved into athletic shoes with styles offered for various sports and activities. By the 1980s, urban working women often carried high-heeled shoes to work in tote bags while commuting in their athletic shoes.

Despite the beautiful dress shoes advertised in fashion magazines, most women wear casual shoes in public and as streetwear.

Young woman wearing saddle oxfords

Young woman wearing saddle oxfords

Modern platform clogs - very 1970s

Modern platform clogs - very 1970s

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 causing 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.

Doc Martins, lace-up workers' boots became highly popular as well as controversial in the 1970s. Showing up at fashion shows and associated with right-wing hooligans, the boots became popular with the working-class culture, as well as the punk, grunge, and goth movements of the late 20th century.

Ankle boots became popular in the early 21st century and are worn with trousers, dresses, and skirts. Some ankle boots feature cut-away portions for summer wear.

Today, all styles are in vogue. Retro revival provides a view into the history of shoes. 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

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

Answer: 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.

Question: Did lace-up boots for women exist in the 1830s? Or only buttons?

Answer: Yes, women wore lace up boots in the 1830s. Ladies' half boots or Adelaides were short boots made of thin leather with laces up the sides. Shoe laces as we know them today did not exist. In 1889, American producers created the hard edged laces that we use today. Metal eyelets for shoes and boots were introduced in 1889.

You can see a well preserved pair of European boots circa 1795 - 1815 at the Met Museum site

© 2011 Dolores Monet


Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on April 15, 2020:

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.

Caitlin Worley on April 15, 2020:

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 (author) from East Coast, United States on August 26, 2016:

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.

Lynne Robb on August 20, 2016:

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 (author) from East Coast, United States on August 19, 2016:

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 (author) from East Coast, United States on May 03, 2016:

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!

Susan Saunders on April 28, 2016:

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 (author) from East Coast, United States on January 14, 2016:

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.