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Changes in women’s footwear – part 5: 1960 to 1969

What impact would the ‘Swinging Sixties’ have on shoe design? We investigate how fashion drew attention to the footwear a woman was wearing.

by Stuart Morgan

If the 1950s was the decade of the elegant and refined woman wearing stiletto heels, the 1960s could be described as the period when footwear designers moved in the opposite direction in order to accommodate a new, free-spirited generation. While shoes with high heels were still available – many women adamantly refused to give up wearing them and designers continued to cater for this demand – their popularity generally waned in favour of much lower heels or even flat footwear.

As in the 1920s, the ‘Sixties’ was a time of extraordinary change, in which young people (who suddenly found themselves with more money to spend) could indulge in highly experimental styles of art, fashion, literature and music. Perhaps the most iconic fashion statements of the 1960s were seen on followers of ‘go-go’ fashion, wearing mini skirts and, to a lesser degree near the end of the decade, hot pants. This ‘look’ – often accompanied by tall boots – took a firm hold on the Western youth market that lasted well into the 1970s. The ‘hippie’ culture, with its flowers, beads, tie-dye clothes, sandals and flip-flops also became a major fashion.

The short skirts and dresses worn during the Sixties exposed a considerable amount of a woman’s leg – a fact that greatly influenced shoe designs. Women’s footwear quickly became a focal point rather than an accessory – a very different view of shoes than had been taken during the previous decade.

On September 12th 1962, US President John F Kennedy declared to a 40,000-strong crowd in a Texas sports stadium, “We choose to go to the Moon!” As the race between the USA and the USSR to be the first to achieve this goal accelerated, new, so-called ‘space-age’ materials – including plastics – were increasingly selected by shoemakers for their products. The general obsession with space travel and futuristic things encouraged designers to use metallic colours such as bronze, green, ‘rocket ship red’ and silver in their collections.

Psychedelic ‘pop art’ influenced the fashion industry and introduced bright colours – for example, deep purple, lime green, mustard yellow, shocking pink and sky blue. Very quickly, shoe designers embraced this trend, especially with the adoption of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) as a shiny upper material. With sufficient flexibility to be shaped into shoes, water-resistant PVC could be made in just about any colour – exactly what the new generation wanted. Before long, shoes and handbags were expected to match a woman’s outfit, no matter how colourful it was. In fact, many shoes were available with matching bags.

Northampton Museum and Art Gallery

Bright colours were popular for footwear in the 1960s – such as on this boot designed by Mary Quant

What footwear styles were popular in the 1960s? We will now consider a few of the major designs.

Kitten heel court shoes

Although many women continued to wear high-heeled court shoes, this style of footwear was often bought with shorter kitten heels, as these were much easier to walk in while still offering a degree of elegance. The kitten heel court shoe was particularly popular in its slingback form, consisting of an open heel and a single strap fastened at the back by a buckle.

Mary Janes

Mary Jane shoes with a kitten heel worn for dancing in 1966

The ever-popular Mary Jane shoe had been in fashion since before World War I, and this style continued to be in demand during the 1960s. The early part of the decade saw the return of the dancing shoe favoured in the 1920s and 1930s, with a sturdy Cuban heel and thin straps.

Mary Janes were available in solid colours or as two-tone combinations (pairing white with almost any other colour or dark-on-dark colours, such as brown and black). Thin straps were popular at the start of the Sixties, but they became wider to accommodate heavy buckles by the middle of the decade.

Both single-strap and multi-strap Mary Jane shoes were available. While they had traditionally featured a strap (or straps) across the arch of the foot, a lower placement closer to the toes was most popular from the middle of the decade. This design change essentially made the shoe a ‘slip-on’ type rather than needing to be buckled, so the straps were generally for decoration only.

Like Mary Janes, T-strap shoes were as popular during the 1960s as they had been with the new generation’s grandmothers. As well as being available as flat shoes for casual wear, T-straps could also be purchased with mid-sized stacked heels and a long, almond-shaped toe. Both Mary Janes and T-straps – in addition to court shoes (pumps) – often featured cutout designs on the upper.

Pilgrim pumps

To provide much-needed toe room, US designers introduced the ‘Pilgrim’ or ‘Colonial’ shoe. This style was so named because it had an elongated and blunt square toe, similar to footwear worn by both women and men in 17th century America.

Although this blunt toe design, which was also called a ‘chisel toe’, was introduced in 1960, it did not gain acceptance until 1965, when it was made even more Pilgrim-like by the addition of large buckles and clips. More casual designs followed, featuring shapes and patterns on the toe. Use of the Union Jack flag on these shoes was popular with youths in Britain.

Pointed shoes

The sharp-pointed winkle-picker shoe was initially carried over from the 1950s, but it lost the high heel. Once combined with a flat ballet sole, it was deemed by some to be a more ‘innocent’ shoe to wear with mini skirts, as it presented a less sexual image than when this short garment was paired with high heels. To prevent the problem of pinched toes experienced by wearers during the previous decade, the shoe tip was extended past the natural toe line. Unfortunately, this extra length made the new winkle-picker somewhat awkward to walk in, so by the middle of the Sixties, the toe was reduced to a more round, almond shape to solve this problem.

Northampton Museum and Art Gallery

A low-heeled 1960s shoe with metallic upper

Go-go boots

At the beginning of the decade, boots were considered to be very practical, but not exactly ‘high fashion’ items. Determined that this should change, American Beth Levine had attempted to sell a calf-length boot in white kidskin leather as early as 1953, but consumer reaction was poor. Nevertheless, four years later, an entire collection was based around ‘fashion boots’ and, despite widespread scepticism from other designers and shoemakers, calf-high, kitten-heeled boots for women very slowly grew in popularity. In 1962, Spanish designer Cristóbal Balenciaga's autumn collection featured a tall boot that just covered the knee, and the following year, Roger Vivier launched thigh-length alligator skin boots. International fashion magazine Vogue finally announced that boots of all lengths were ‘the look of the moment’.

Nationaal Archief

A high boot with fastening straps modelled in a 1969 fashion show

Aided by the introduction of new materials, fashion boots then burst onto the scene and gained a considerable following. While at first, most of these boots were made with stiletto and kitten heels, their designers adopted lower heels at the same time as these were being used by shoemakers.

‘Go-go’ boots were a low-heeled fashion boot first introduced in the mid-1960s. The original go-go boots were white and mid-calf in height, and sometimes called the ‘Courrèges boot’, after French fashion designer André Courrèges, who is often credited with creating the style. While the first Courrèges boots were made of leather (often kidskin or patent), PVC, vinyl and other plastics quickly became the material of choice.

There are a number of suggestions for the origins of the term ‘go-go’. One says that the footwear was named after a club in West Hollywood, USA or the 1965 album ‘Going to a Go-Go’ by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Another claim is that ‘go-go’ was derived from the French expression à gogo, meaning ‘as much as you like’, ‘to your heart's content’ or ‘galore’. The term ‘go-go dancer’ first appeared in print in 1965, and other commentators say that the go-go boot was named after an exuberant disco dance style.

Soon after their introduction, the term ‘go-go’ boot came to include a variety of knee-high boots with block heels and square toes, as well as kitten-heeled versions and in colours other than white.

Go-go boots were chosen for two of the female characters in the Sixties British TV spy series ‘The Avengers’ – Cathy Gale (played by Honor Blackman) and Emma Peel, whose part was acted by Diana Rigg. Their black leather boots became an identifiable part of the show and were often used in promotional photographs. The boots chosen by the show’s wardrobe department began as ankle-high versions, with knee-high styles being worn by the actresses by 1966. As a tribute to the popularity of go-go boots, a 1964 song called ‘Kinky Boots’ – recorded by Patrick Macnee (who starred as John Steed in The Avengers) and Honor Blackman – was re-released in 1990, when it reached number five in the British singles chart.

Nancy Sinatra’s chart-topping song ‘These Boots Are Made For Walkin’’ was released in February 1966, and its popularity helped to confirm the affection women had for this style of footwear.

The ‘Cuissarde’ was an even taller version of the go-go boot. This was manufactured in shiny leather and had an over-the-knee fit. However, few women wore Cuissardes because, while they were reasonably comfortable, the style was usually considered too extreme and became hot to wear after about an hour.

Most go-go boots were plain in colour, although two-tone designs in black and white were also popular, as were such combinations as green and yellow or blue and white.

Half boots

An entirely new footwear design – half shoe and half boot – was introduced in the 1960s. Loose enough to be a ‘slip-on’ style, it had a pointed toe and very low or flat heel (like a contemporary shoe), but only came to the top of the ankle. A small bow or buckle made it sufficiently feminine to be worn with dresses and skirts.

Sneakers

While saddle shoes had been the casual footwear of choice since the late 1920s, they were viewed as ‘too old fashioned’ soon after the decade began. Most women then preferred a flat-soled ‘sneaker’ for casual occasions. At first, these shoes were generally white and plain – without fancy stitching – although they were soon made available in a range of subtle and bright colours to match every possible outfit.

Sixties style shoes today

Footwear styles are often reintroduced many years later – usually with slight tweaks to their appearance – and designs from the Sixties are no exception. For example, flat shoes with pointed toes regained popularity in 2013, multi-strap shoes were big news the following year, and high boots and half boots were sold again in 2015.

Then the 1970s arrived…

What would the new decade hold? The next part of this series will reveal new footwear fashions that took the world by storm.

How can we help?

Please email footwear@satra.com for assistance with the testing of materials, components and finished footwear.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 50 of the July/August 2018 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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