Thursday, April 22, 2010

Strange & Beautiful Shoes

Thursday, April 22, 2010
Loretta reports:

The first third of the 19th century, the setting of my books, offers all kinds of entertaining & fascinating apparel.  But not so much the shoes.  So far as I can ascertain, they were all flat soled, and came in two styles:  half-boots or ballet slippers.  This was the case, even in the 1830s, when women's fashions became flamboyant to a nutty degree.  As Rachel of the FIDM Museum blog explains in her post about these beautiful evening boots, flat shoes remained in fashion well into the century. 

We often hear people decry high-heeled shoes as bad for the back and knees.  But early 19th century shoes, with their thin soles, wouldn’t win any prizes from podiatrists, either.  (Not long ago, I heard one lecture at length about the evils of flip-flops.)  And as pretty as the flat shoes might have been, I would vastly prefer more variety in the up and down department.

You can imagine my delight, then, when I discovered Toronto, Ontario’s Bata Shoe Museum and its 10,000-plus shoes.  This newspaper article focused on their exhibition of platform shoes —a footwear fashion dear to my heart, because it let me be deliciously tall and tower over men—or at least look them in the eye.

The slap-sole shoes in particular fascinated me.  If any historical dress experts want to hold forth about them, please feel free.  And if any of you has a theory about why the flat shoe stayed in fashion for so many decades in the 19th century, you are in the unique position of having, here at 2NHG, the kind of audience who actually wants to hear it.

And for those who haven't had enough shoes, here's the antithesis of the Regency ballet-style shoe.

At lower right is a shoe I absolutely love, dated 1909-1914, and courtesy the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540.  You can find the complete record here.


Anonymous said...

I've been reading your blog for quite a while and finally was inspired to comment. I'm in grad school studying material culture in Europe and the empire but with a fascination for fashions through the ages. In regards to your question on flat footwear I think the answer is two-fold. First, flat shoes were far easier to make and replace than their heavier counterparts (and it's important to remember that these slippers were for the higher classes only). Second, the nineteenth century was all about domesticity and idealized versions of women in the private sphere, delicate shoes reflected this. Also, they made a woman look smaller and daintier. I don't have any sources to back these up but from my general research this is my quick answer!

Marilyn said...

The Shoes we had in the Museum for 1820-30 were the flat ballet type made of fabric but very beautiful! However they wore heels in the era of Madame Pompadour, Mistress of Louis XV of France. So, why didn't they in a much later era.....hmmn! Fashion, comfort or choice it almost had to one or the other. Below is an image of the type of shoe I refer to in France.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Marilyn, if you've actually seen shoes like these, then I have a question for you (or anyone else who has seen shoes from the 1830s)! In the drawings like the one Loretta has used in the heading, the shoes look like they have no backs -- that they're really only covering the toes, with the lacings holding the sole to the heels. Is this true, or just the way the fashion artists drew them?

If they are in fact just little toe-caps, then that changes the whole notion of them being "ballet slipper" styles. Instead those soles would slap gently against the bottoms of the heels -- as anyone who has worn this kind of sandal has experienced--and it would become crucial to keep retying the lacings so they'd stay tight.

Anyone have thoughts on this?

Rowenna said...

I have to admit that I'll take heels over dainty little flats--high arches and all :) The Bata Shoe Museum's website is worth checking out--they have some great online exhibits!

Anon--I think you're on the right track with dainty shoes being part of the move toward femininity/domesticity. Eighteenth-century shoes are much more similar between men's and women's styles. Some styles are pratically identical! Makes sense that with changing ideas about women's roles and characters, their shoes would have changed, too.

Jane O said...

I an understand those thin-soled slippers being manageable if you were riding in a carriage every time you left the house, but were they all you had in the country too? I'm thinking of the Bennett girls walking into town and Lizzie hiking a couple of miles through the fields to find out how Jane is doing. Every pebble would hurt!
And what did servants and the poor wear?

Anonymous said...

I had to smile when I read this post, because it reminded me of an article I read just the other day about running shoes vs bare feet:

It doesn't have anything in it about high heels, but maybe they were really onto something with all those flat shoes back then? I, for one, would prefer to go barefoot.

nightsmusic said...

My DD2 would fit right in if those shoes are backless. She lives in flip-flops. I hate it. But she loves them though I really don't think they're appropriate for the office, even if she insists they said yes, she can wear them. :roll:

I too think the whole 'dainty little flats' thing went along with that whole, women are fragile and must be expected to act as window dressing for the home and nothing more' idea that was prevalent in that time.

You know, after the week I've had, I think I could go for being window dressing for a few days ;)

LorettaChase said...

Susan, the shoes weren't backless, though, now I look closer at the drawing, they do appear that way. Maybe these were evening half-boots, with that spats effect they liked? I'll have to hunt for some extant samples at V&A, but all my costume books show the shoes looking like ballet slippers--flat, with the criss-cross ties.

Julia Ergane said...

Quite a number of years ago I went to a special exhibit in the Fashion department at the Metropolitan Museaum of Art. It was on the clothes of the era of Louis XVI, the Revolution and Napoleon. At her execution, Marie Antoinette lost one of the shoes she was wearing (it fell off as she was climbing up the scaffold and someone retrieved and kept it). This shoe was in the exhibit. She probably had a size less than 4 -- and it had a Louis heel and a regular leather sole.

Mme.Tresbeau said...

I want them all - except perhaps those last ones with the skyscraper heels!

Marilyn said...

Just now coming on...the shoes are not backless that I saw they are flat little fabric shoes..I think they may have had ties but they were gone. Feet were much smaller and these shoes were used for dress up..quite beautiful with the dresses of that period. The 1820's dress for a party or Ball We had that went with them was empire of course and filmy material! I was quite surprised at how filmy you could put your hand behind the material and see clearly! found this... ours was like this including shoes

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Thank you for the clarification, Marilyn. That ball gown was a beauty, too. How could a lady not be light on her feet wearing that?

Sources said...
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