History of Shoes - 19th and 20th Century Women's Footwear
Front Lace Up Boots
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 1880's saw the beginning of shoes made specifically for the right or left foot. All shoes had, in the past, been hand made by shoe makers, 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.
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 1800's 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 1940's
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.'
History of the Sneaker
An early form of the sneaker, or tennis shoe was developed in England. The 1830's 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 1880's, 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 day wear 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.
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 bare 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 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.
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 hammer toes. 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.Helpful 3