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Changes in women’s footwear – part 2: 1930 to 1939

Continuing our consideration of how shoe styles have developed over the last 100 years.

by Stuart Morgan

The first part of this series investigated the contrasting styles of women’s shoes between the 1910s and the 1920s. The new decade ushered in a time of incredible change, with art, culture and music bursting through the austerity of the 1914-1918 war years. The discovery of Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb and treasures in 1922 brought an explosion of exotic styles, involving satin, silk and velvet embellished with metallic overstitching, embroidery and faux gemstones. The world of fashion seemed to have an unstoppable power all of its own. Then an unexpected event threw everything into doubt – the US stock market crash.

The 1930s


The Great Depression forced millions of people into poverty, including this mother and her children photographed in 1936

To many people, the 1930s is often viewed as a rather boring time, stuck between the wild decadence of the 1920s and the death, destruction and extreme shortages of the Second World War. The decade began with the immediate effects of the 1929 Wall Street crash in the USA. Many fortunes disappeared in an instant and the entire American economy was affected. This resulted in widespread poverty around the country, with traumatic ramifications hitting much of the world’s population.

As the world plunged into a financial depression, many families found themselves poverty stricken. For the poorest people, ‘making do’, mending and charity handouts were their only recourse. Other people managed to hold onto a job, although they still faced a level of hardship. A few, by fair means or foul, still managed to keep their wealth and enjoy at least some trappings of their former lifestyle. These women were the ideal customers for shoe manufacturers but, as there were now fewer customers in their position, producers also had to economise in order to survive.


A variety of shoe styles worn by Australian actresses in 1939


A 1932 newspaper advert

Not surprisingly, styles of clothing in the 1930s were generally less extravagant than they had been during the previous decade. Nevertheless, while a considerable proportion of footwear upper material was produced in somewhat sombre black, brown, maroon and navy blue, an effort was made by a number of shoemakers to keep some of the previous decade’s exuberance alive by providing footwear in a selection of bright colours. It was almost as if the manufacturers were trying to giving a beleaguered generation something positive in their lives, even though expendable income was in severely short supply for the majority of ordinary people.

Unavoidably, women who were still reasonably wealthy could be differentiated from those who had been impoverished by the Great Depression – the latter had to wear older footwear and any holes in the soles just had to be endured. It has been said that this time of financial upheaval (and the war that followed) interrupted a general trend that was making women's footwear increasingly glamorous.

Being fashionable was still important, and even in the face of extreme financial hardship, women in many parts of the world were occasionally able to introduce a little joy in their lives by purchasing a new pair of shoes.

Women who wanted to be fashionable simply had to find a way to make the most of a lower budget than they were used to, and this actually gave them the incentive to look for something new and different to wear. As in the 21st century, the power of celebrity influenced the 1930s consumer when it came to choice of hairstyle, clothes and shoes. No famous figures played a greater role than the Hollywood stars of the day, such as Claudette Colbert, Jean Harlow, Dorothy Lamour, Vivien Leigh and Barbara Stanwyck.

Granger Historical Picture Archive

The 1930s consumer’s choice of hairstyle, clothes and shoes was greatly influenced by Hollywood celebrities. Two popular stars of the day were Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, seen here in the 1936 movie ‘Swing Time’

Going to the cinema was affordable and incredibly popular in the 1930s. Many people saw films almost every Saturday, and magazines devoted to movie stars were available on the newsstand. These publications virtually dissected the lives of the stars and, among other things, explained in detail the fashions they wore.

The film studio directors recognised the value of the actresses working for them, and carefully moulded the way they dressed and styled themselves – even going so far as to recommend weight control and plastic surgery where they felt it necessary. This control extended to attempts to guide the stars’ personalities, such as what they could say to the media, and even whom they were allowed to marry.

Perhaps as an effort to rally against the daily struggle, women’s’ magazines recommended that their readers should go to the movies, study their favourite actresses, and dress and act just like them. The result was that – as far as their spending money could stretch – thousands of film star lookalikes could be seen around the world.


Many magazines were published during the 1930s to highlight every aspect of movie stars’ lives – including their choice of shoes


Most women’s footwear of the time had a reasonable sized heel – often of the built-up, Cuban, military or Spanish variety (although slimmer versions were also available). These heels were usually made of wood, were quite square in shape, and raised the shoe by up to three inches. Lower heels were available for casual and work wear. In fact, even sports shoes generally had a small, flat heel of one inch or less in height. Footwear designers introduced the first platform shoes during the 1930s. However, this new fashion was affected when the world went to war again in 1939 – a shortage of leather and a ban on the use of rubber for non-essential requirements forced shoemakers to make platforms from cork, wood and other materials.

Adding style

While shoes designed in the 1930s were described as having ‘sturdy practicality’, designers did make attempts to add embellishment with the use of brogueing, cut outs and appliqué art deco decoration. These cut-outs were positioned to reveal skin or were lined with a contrasting colour of fabric or leather. Other attempts to breathe life into a hard decade include the use of clip-on bows, contrasting stitching and swirls. Two-tone designs were popular in all shoe styles. Toes were rounded or almond shaped for most of the 1930s, with a square toe emerging at the end of the decade.

Oxford shoes

The Oxford shoe continued to be popular with women in the 1930s. In line with other styles of the decade, Oxfords featured creative cut outs and contrasting two-tone colouring. Most were of the laced variety, although others had buckles or could be slipped on.

Court shoes

The 1930s slip-on court shoe (pump) is now a classic design still much in vogue in the 21st century. The most popular leather for women’s footwear (when the shoe was affordable) was suede, especially when it was accented with patent leather. However, bovine leather became too costly for many women during the decade, so some shoe designers turned to using fabrics in their footwear. Most court shoes were made in plain colours and were available with a low Cuban heel or a taller Louis heel.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

An embellished court shoe made in 1932


The T-strap shoe continued to be popular, although this style was also given a 1930s makeover with the generous use of cut-outs and perforations. White was the most popular summer shoe colour, although black T-straps remained the ideal shoe for both day and evening wear. The more refined shoes featured narrow straps that were fastened with small silver buckles. ‘Casual’ shoes had wider straps with additional cross straps often added to the design, mimicking the appearance of cut-outs.

As well as T-strap styles, shoes with a single strap (often called ‘Mary Janes’ today) continued the trend that began in the 1920s. These secured the footwear high on the instep, and featured the delicate cut-outs, and contrasting colours that became so popular during the following decade.

Monk straps

Monk strap shoes featured an extra-wide strap fitted across the middle of the instep that was buckled on the side. It also had a tongue that fully covered the top of the foot and a tall vamp. Oxford shoes were most commonly fitted with a monk strap, again with considerable perforations.

Strappy sandals

True ‘strappy’ sandals were introduced in the 1930s, with a latticework of straps securing the shoe while revealing the foot as never before. Strappy sandals were available in an assortment of styles, including as high heels, open toes, platforms, wedges (or more than one of these styles combined together). Another sandal style to be found in the shops was the slingback. However, most stockings of the day had reinforced heels – deemed an undesirable sight – so slingback shoes were not viewed as very glamorous. They were generally worn with a long dress that covered the back of the foot. White was the most popular colour for sandals of the day, and the majority had a heel – often Cuban style – at least 11/2 inches high.

Decorative tongues

Some 1930s shoes featured a selection of removable fringed tongues, which provided the cash-strapped wearer with a number of shoes for the price of one. While normally used in a lace-up Oxford shoe, such removable components were also found in sandals and monk strap shoes.

Ghillie laces

Another 1930s shoe trend featured ‘Ghillie laces’. These were usually threaded through flat loops of the upper material rather than involving eyelets, and the lacing points were set wide across the instep, leading to a criss-cross design. Like most fashionable footwear in the 1930s, Ghillie-laced shoes featured brogue cut-outs, and were available in two-tone colouring or with a removable tongue.

1930s evening shoes

An evening out gave a woman the chance to look like a glamorous Hollywood star. Such footwear usually featured a Louis heel up about to 3 inches in height and leather soles. The style came to be called ‘dancing shoes’, because they were usually only worn in the ballroom. While some evening shoes were styled as court shoes, strappy sandals were best for dancing. The T-strap shoe – introduced in the 1920s – was still the preferred evening style, especially when combined with a high heel.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

American ‘evening shoes’ from 1933

While black patent leather was the most versatile upper material, shimmering metallic colours such as bronze, gold or silver were even more desirable. Some early 1930s evening shoes featured embellishment with beadwork or embroidery. Art Deco-inspired trim also continuing to be popular, although in a more subdued form than was seen in the Roaring Twenties. Naturally, uppers with cut-out designs were to be found in many designers’ collections. While toes in 1930s women’s footwear were generally closed, open-toed shoes could also be bought to make the most of a new fashion for painted toenails.

Heading to war

The end of the decade was a time of international political tension which resulted in an increase in general concern about a possible second great war. Unavoidably, such unrelenting stress affected much of the world’s population and, while many women were determined to continue dressing as glamorously as they could, others started to wear more practical shoes. How the outbreak of war affected shoemakers and their attempts to rebuild the industry after the final shot was fired will be explored in the next part of this series.

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Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 42 of the April 2018 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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