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

Updated on August 1, 2017
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

A style that is as attractive today as it was over 100 years ago.
A style that is as attractive today as it was over 100 years ago. | 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 1880's saw the beginning of shoes made specifically for the right or left foot. 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.

Shoe Form

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.

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

Garibaldi boots were elastic sided 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.

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 on right) 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

You can see the seam that divides the upper and lower part of the boot.
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.'



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.

Converse All-Stars

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 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.

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 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.


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    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 15 months 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 16 months 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 image

      Dolores Monet 16 months 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 image

      Dolores Monet 19 months 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!

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      Susan Saunders 19 months 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 image

      Dolores Monet 23 months 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.