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Changes in women's footwear – part 4: 1950 to 1959

How the footwear industry adapted to a period of economic growth in many countries around the world.

by Stuart Morgan

Image © yurok | iStockphoto.com

After the Second World War ended, optimism was high for a fresh start and things quickly ‘getting back to normal’. In the same way that fashion in the ‘Roaring Twenties’ was seen by many as a partial remedy to the ‘Great War’ of 1914-1918, efforts were made during the 1950s to replace the often staid and sombre fashions forced upon women by the restrictions caused by the second worldwide conflict with something far more dazzling.

Dresses became bigger and brighter and hairstyles were suddenly taller. However, any extravagance seen in other areas of women’s fashion did not seem to be adopted by shoemakers. However, while many footwear designers in previous decades had opted for bold patterns and large, fancy trims, women’s styles in the early 1950s were often limited to single-coloured court shoes, flats, loafers and wedge heels. In fact, most footwear of the time was a plain, understated accessory in black or brown. Soon, though, designers did start include some bright colours, prints and patterns in their collections.

yurok | iStockphoto.com

Optimism was high for a fresh start after the darkest decade in human history

The global footwear industry grew at an incredible rate in the 1950s, and production records were broken nearly every year during the decade. For example, in 1955 there were over 575 million pairs of shoes produced in the USA alone which, at the time, was a record. Improved flexibility and fit was achieved through the use of new lasts, and better construction techniques and materials delivered lighter weight and softness.

Particularly from the middle of the decade, fashion designers laid emphasis on elegance, refinement and luxury, and women’s shoes quickly reflected this influence. Closed shoes were particularly in favour, and older styles (such as T-straps) were reborn and given a modern look. Of course, not every woman wanted to wear elegant footwear all the time. As a result, casual shoes – intended for sport or leisure – were very popular.

In Britain…

After the 1939-1945 war, austerity lasted longer in Britain than it did in the USA. In 1953, Elizabeth II was crowned as Queen, and this event coincided roughly with a growth in affluence. Shoes became available in an impressive choice of colours to reflect the energy of a youthful market. By the early 1950s, women’s strappy sandals had arrived in Britain. Three years later, the first injection-moulded sandals were made there, and women’s plastic evening shoes were in British shops by 1958. To counteract rising prices, some shoes were made without a lining.

In the following paragraphs, we will examine some popular women’s shoe styles of the 1950s.

The stiletto heel

Archives New Zealand

The shoes given to Air New Zealand hostesses in 1959 included stiletto heels

While high heels on women’s shoes had been seen for many years before the 1950s, footwear by designers Andre Perugia, Salvatore Ferragamo and Roger Vivier incorporated the incredibly slender stiletto heel, using a thin steel rod within its construction. The name ‘stiletto’ is derived from a type of long, slender knife blade with a needle-like point – viewed as being similar in profile to the heel of the shoe.

The 1950s saw an incredible rise in popularity of the stiletto heel, with designers vying to make the thinnest heel. In fact, the extremely slender stiletto heels of the late 1950s were, in some instances, no more than 5mm in diameter for most of their length. Although most women found these shoes very uncomfortable to walk in, they loved the extra height the style gave them. Vivier also designed a version of the ‘winkle-picker’ pointed shoe – with a spiked heel that often exceeded 80mm in height.

The birth of stiletto heels created a headache for the owners of hotels, stores and other public buildings – suddenly they had to find ways to protect their floors from all the resulting indentations. By the end of the decade, lower heels began to rival the stiletto as acceptable fashion.

Loafers

The loafer – which includes moccasin styles – was the most casual shoe for girls and women. This footwear was easy to don, durable, available in a number of colours, and casual enough to wear sockless or with short white ‘bobby socks’. The ‘penny loafer’ was particularly popular with teenagers. This shoe got its name because of the slit in the decorative leather strap across the tongue, which was just the right size to hold a coin used to call home from a public phone box. The most common colours for penny loafers were brown or white, while other slip-on shoes were sold in colourful shades, patent leather, plastic or similar shiny materials.

Court shoes

Court shoes (known as ‘pumps’ in the USA) remained popular throughout the 1950s. They were normally cut very low at the sides and on the top of the foot, and in 1955, a new shape of court shoe, cut straight across the instep and with a lower heel and a wider toe, was introduced. This was called an ‘opera pump’. An almond-shaped toe was the best seller, but over time, almond toes became more pointed. By 1958, the point was cut off these shoes completely to produce a new wedge shape.

Rossimoda Shoes Museum

A 1950s Italian shoe made with a light coloured leather upper covered in lacework

Ballet flats

Another popular shoe style was the ‘flatty’, and sales reached their peak when Hollywood actress Audrey Hepburn announced that they were

her favourites. Some ballet flats featured very small heels, and other examples were completely flat. Black seemed to be the colour of choice, accessorised with a thin bow on the top, although other colours were also available to match a hair ornament, belt, purse or scarf.

1950s wedges

Daderot

Special ‘trick’ platform shoes made to give 1950s Hollywood actress Mae West more height

The wedge shoe – an iconic shoe from the 1940s – was also popular during the following decade. As before, these shoes retained the chunky shape and gave lift to the wearer’s heel. However, toe openings were bigger in the 1950s, and the wedge heels were a little taller. They also curved inward to provide a slightly more delicate look.

Sandals

While during the 1940s, most sandals featured peep toes, the wearer’s toes in the 1950s versions were normally fully exposed and the retaining straps were very thin. Sandals for eveningwear showed off the most foot skin and had the thinnest heels, and ultra-thin

T-straps, slingbacks and ankle straps were incorporated to provide just enough fastening to keep the shoe on while making the foot look bare. Such shoes for eveningwear were especially popular in nude colours and some were also available in the latest clear plastics. By contrast, most daywear styles had lower, more chunky heels, and featured a medium thickness ankle strap around the heel as a slingback.

​ A movie-themed shop window

Saddle shoes

Perhaps nothing characterised the 1950s like the saddle shoe – and this style was not reserved for teenagers alone. Saddle shoes were laced Oxford shoes normally in black and white leather (but also available in white and other contrasting dark colours such as navy blue and brown). These shoes – normally accompanied with short white bobby socks – were a favourite with teenage girls who wore a ‘poodle skirt’ (featuring, as the name suggests, a picture of a poodle) which was ‘the thing to wear’ for a number of years. Saddle shoes and their laces had to be kept in pristine condition. Polishing leather, washing soles and even bleaching laces became a regular part of a nightly routine. A new pair was purchased as soon as they began to show signs of wear.

White nubuck Oxford shoes (‘bucks’) were also very popular with teenage girls and, as with the saddle shoes, they also had to be kept perfectly white all the time. In fact, small bags of chalk powder were included with each pair of white buck shoes so that they could be powdered at regular intervals.

1950s saddle shoes commemorated on an American stamp

Into the sixties

As we have seen, footwear in the 1950s generally reflected restrained elegance and, while bright colours did become available, styling was often intended as an accessory rather than a distinct fashion statement – certainly a contrast to the often exuberant designs of pre-war times. What would the new decade bring? The next part of this series will investigate the swinging, psychedelic sixties.

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Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 44 of the June 2018 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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