Changes in women’s footwear – part 1: 1910 to 1929
How footwear styles have altered during the past 100 years – and how certain design elements can still be seen today.
Image © Metropolitan Museum of Art
For centuries, women’s shoes and boots have basically played exactly the same role – to protect the wearer’s feet while looking reasonably attractive or sometimes eye-catching. However, as we know, fashion ebbs and flows, and styles change – some dramatically, others with more subtlety. Of course, on occasion, style choices have been severely affected by war or economic depression, causing a generation of women to ‘make do’ rather than enjoying the chance to be as fashionable as their mothers may have been.
Still, these darker times pass by, and the fashion industry picks up again, allowing for new and exciting styles to burst onto the market. The rejection of previously-popular designs and the adoption of new – sometimes innovative – creations as each decade (or even year) rolls by can be seen when we consider just what was being worn in years gone by. Perhaps of even greater interest is how certain characteristics of women’s footwear design return many years after they were first revealed to the buying public.
In this short series, we will see how 100 years of women’s footwear fashion has changed, starting in this article with the years between 1910 and 1929.
Despite King George V having been on the British throne since his father Edward’s death in 1910. The period up to the 1920s is still often referred to as ‘Edwardian’. The First World War of 1914-1918 saw millions of men going to fight around the world. With women filling the jobs left vacant by the men’s absence, a desire for more practical women’s shoes for use in the factories was born.
However, as shortages started to bite, the idea of being wasteful was severely criticised. With a lack of fabrics, dresses became shorter and the same design of tall boot that had been worn at the turn of the century was now viewed as practical rather than ‘old-fashioned’.
Edwardian women’s boots
These lace-up or button-up tall boots usually came to around mid calf, and were often secured all the way up the front of the leg. Generally made from black or deep brown leather, some were also available with canvas or embroidered fabric inserts set into the shaft. Towards the end of the Edwardian era, two-tone boots in black and white or black and ivory became available. Contrasting with the fussy design of tall boots, the shorter pull-on variety in the shops during the 1910s had elastic panels in the sides and featured pull tabs on both the front and back to make them easy to don.
A few footwear designers did try to create more interesting styles with, for example, leathers mixed with coloured canvas or gabardine, to create two-tone ‘spectators’. Suede became popular, and ballet-style pumps were decorated with a variety of removable buckles made from steel and decorated with silver filigree, diamanté or marcasite. Once peace was declared, fashions quickly changed in an effort to throw off the depression of wartime austerity.
Some Edwardian women’s shoes had high heels that were slightly curved, although while World War I was raging, working women wore sensible laced-up shoes that featured round toes and lower wedge heels.
Another favoured footwear style during the Edwardian era was the Oxford shoe. This had a heel of moderate height and the shoe laced up the vamp. An Oxford shoe with a very low heel was a deemed a working women’s shoe, as it was often viewed as the most comfortable style and the easiest to keep clean.
Mary Janes and Louis heels
The most popular Edwardian ‘evening shoe’ (or ‘slipper’) for dinner, dancing and weddings was the ‘Mary Jane’. This style had a single strap across the vamp which was fastened by a button, and the shoes often featured a considerable amount of beading. Some of these evening shoes featured several straps or a single large button on a flap across the vamp. Another popular shoe style was the ‘colonial’, so called because it incorporated a large tongue and a buckle similar to 18th century shoe styles. Of course, not all court shoes were so ornate – a classic slip-in style was sold that had no strap or lacing, but might include a simple form of decoration like a buckle, pompom, shoe clip or some other sparkly item on the toe.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Metropolitan Museum of Art
One trend saw the heels on shoes designed for evening wear decorated with metal sequins or rhinestones, or being painted a contrasting colour. Instead of a strap, many Mary Jane shoes featured eyelets through which a ribbon was passed and tied in a bow at the top. Interestingly, the Mary Jane shoe never went out of style and is just as easy to find in shops today as it was in the 1920s.
The flared Louis heel, named after 18th century French King Louis XIV (the ‘Sun King’) and described as a ‘romantic’ style, regained popularity in the late 1800s and continued in use though this and the following decade.
Into the 1920s
The ‘Roaring Twenties’ was a time of incredible change, during which more liberal views on acceptable dress codes were forged. It was a period of sustained economic prosperity with a distinctive cultural edge in the United States and Western Europe, particularly in major cities such as Berlin, Chicago, London, Los Angeles, New York, Paris and Sydney. In France, the decade became known as the ‘années folles’ (‘crazy years’), due to the era's artistic, cultural and social dynamism. Jazz music took much of the world by storm, the ‘flapper’ movement redefined the modern look for British and American women, and ‘Art Deco’ styling reached the zenith of its significance.
Dance crazes like the Charleston, which demanded a securely fastened shoe with a low heel and a closed toe, influenced standard shoe design tremendously.
The discovery of ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 served to encourage a love of all things exotic, and this was reflected in shoe designs of the age. Brilliantly dyed leather, metallic finishes and bright fabrics were used to create never-before seen designs, and rich brocades, satin, silk and velvet were often embellished with metallic overstitching, embroidery and fake gemstones. Heels were often decorated with crystals, often in Art Deco designs.
It has been said that after wearing boots and long dresses for so long, women in the 1920s wanted to show off their feet. One shoe that achieved this – the ‘T-strap’ – was perhaps the most popular shoe of the Roaring Twenties.
The T-strap shoe (featuring a single T-bar up the front of the foot through which passed a strap) was designed to stay on the wearer’s foot securely while showing off as much skin as possible. By the end of the decade, straps became thinner, and were often covered in metal sequins or semi-precious stones shaped into geometric designs. Even more of the foot was revealed through the use of cutouts on the sides, straps and toes.
After so many years of wearing black, brown or white footwear, the choice of colours grew with the introduction of dyed silk and satin. The heels of many shoes featured hand-painted swirls of blue, gold, red and silver, and Asian or Greek motifs were also popular.
Now that shoe straps were no longer hidden under clothing, straps became very fancy. Some were closed with small sparkling buckles or fabric-covered buttons, and designs combining an ankle strap, multi-strap and T-strap style in one shoe were launched on the market. Modern footwear styles using multi-strap fixing can therefore trace their heritage back to earlier times.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
In line with the dynamic exuberance of the 1920s, animal and reptile skins were used as trim on toes and vamps. Embossed or hand-carved Egyptian motifs decorated leather shoes, and when white canvas shoes were the thing to wear during the summer, they were often finished with flat bows on the vamp.
Colonial-style shoes featuring a large tongue (and often an oversized buckle) continued in popularity. Some of these shoes were manufactured with rich fabrics such as velvet or satin, as well as elaborately embroidered tongues.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
The evolution of the Oxford shoe
As with the previous decade, the lace-up Oxford shoe was the sturdy everyday house and walking shoe of the 1920s. During the 1920s, Oxford shoes were generally made from plain smooth leather with cap toe and thick heels up to 13⁄4 inches high. The slimmer Louis heel was still common in the early 1920s and was used in heights of up to two inches. Some Oxford shoes started to incorporate rubber heels, which made them more comfortable when used as walking shoes.
Two-tone Oxford shoe were made in such combinations as black/white, brown/white, brown/tan or grey/white. As the decade progressed, two-toned shoes became increasingly ornate – rather than simple blocks of colour, the dark trim was used in a number of locations over the shoe. Laces were also selected that contrasted with the trim.
One specific two-tone laced-up Oxford shoe design (which later became known as a saddle shoe) was made from sturdy calfskin leather and featured a very low heel and a thick sole. The centre panel was a dark colour (most commonly black, brown or grey), with the toe and heel contrasting in white. By the late 1920s, these shoes were available with the centre dark panel featuring checks, paisley prints, plaid or polka dots. Small cutouts or brogue patterns were also used on the toe or seams.
The canvas tennis shoe – the forerunner of the modern sneaker – began its meteoric rise in the 1920s. These flat, lace-up shoes were popular with women who enjoyed their sport and were available in brown or white. Even if not wearing canvas shoes to participate in a sport, many women viewed this footwear as perfectly fashionable for a picnic or other relaxed occasion.
Harder times ahead
Little did anyone guess as the 1920s drew to a close that a sudden and dramatic global economic downturn lay ahead – let alone another devastating world war. All of this would in one way or another affect the supply of women’s footwear and the consumer’s ability to purchase. The next part of this series will consider these momentus times in the 1930s.
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This article was originally published on page 44 of the March 2018 issue of SATRA Bulletin.