I saw these 18thc. shoes earlier this year as part of the exhibition Cosmopolitan Consumption: New England Shoe Stories 1750-1850 held by the Portsmouth (NH) Athenaeum. I've written about other shoes and garments from the show (here, here, and here), but there's something about the cheerful red and green brocade of this pair that made me want to share them now in December.
These shoes are made not of silk, but of wool brocade. Long-wearing and easily dyed, wool was a popular choice for women's shoes in the 18thc., but not many survive in modern collections. Wool is a protein-fiber that's a tasty treat for moths, and while these shoes have been expertly conserved, there is still moth damage along the sides and fronts that reveals the linen lining. The shoes would have been fastened with buckles through the straps across the top of the foot; buckles were considered fashion accessories that were switched from pair to pair.
These were fashionable shoes, too. Not only was the brocade expensive, but the high, curving heels were more stylish than practical, and it's likely the shoes belonged to a wealthy woman. While their complete history isn't known, the label pasted inside one of the shoes shows they were made by John Hose, a prominent London cordwainer (shoemaker) whose shoes were imported to the American colonies. The shoes are "straights," without a defined left or right, and were probably not bespoke, but bought from the shopkeeper who had imported them.
There's another clue that these shoes were valued. Look closely at the vamp, below the straps, in the photo, right. At some point, the shoes were widened with a gusset, an inset piece of solid-colored cloth. Did the original owner need the additional room because of pregnancy, age, or illness? Or were the alterations made by a later owner? No matter the reason, the shoes were clearly important enough to the wearer to have them carefully adjusted for longer wear - a very different philosophy from today's "fast fashion."
Many thanks to our good friend Kimberly Alexander for assistance with this post. For more information about these shoes and many others, stayed tuned for her upcoming book Georgian Shoe Stories From Early America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016.)
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.