In the world of fashion history, it's usually the materials or the creator that contribute to an item's rarity. But with these shoes, it's the wearer herself - and the adjustments that were done for her - that make them truly one-of-a-kind.
When Mary Wise (1741-1792) of Chebacco (now Essex), MA, was preparing for her 1764 wedding to John Farley, she must have wanted the same thing that every bride wants: to look her very best on her wedding day. No doubt she wore a gown that might have been made of the same floral silk brocade as these shoes. But because skirts in the 1760s were short enough to show a lady's feet, the shoes would have made their own fashion-statement, perhaps with a glittering pair of silver or paste buckles to catch the light with every step.
But in Mary's case, the shoes must have had extra significance. From illness, accident, or birth, one of Mary's legs was significantly shorter than the other. In 18th c. parlance, she would have been considered halt, or lame. Her wedding shoes - imported from London, or the work of an expert colonial shoemaker - were either especially made for her, or customized to accommodate her needs. The left shoe is built up with a higher heel and a platform sitting on an extended sole for extra stability. The platform is covered with more of the same silk as the shoes, and beautifully finished. The difference between the two shoes is nearly 1-1/2", but the solution is as elegant as possible.
There's no way of knowing now if the special shoes helped Mary walk without a limp, or if she might still have had to lean on the arm of her new husband for support. Nor do we know if the rest of Mary's shoes were similarly modified, since none of them survived. But I'm sure that on her wedding day, Mary must have felt beautiful and special, and that's what matters most to every bride.
These shoes were included in the recent exhibition Cosmopolitan Consumption at the Portsmouth, NH, Atheneum. (I've already shared other shoes from the show here and here.) Many thanks to our good friend Kimberly Alexander for a personal tour, and for assistance with this post. For more information about these shoes and many others, stayed tuned for Kimberly's upcoming book Georgian Shoe Stories From Early America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016.)In the meantime, please check out her blog, Silk Damask, for more fascinating fashion and textile history.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.