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You name the colour

Investigating the development of colour choice in footwear uppers.

by Stuart Morgan

Image © peepo |

In this 21st century, it seems possible for consumers to buy the products they want in virtually any shape, size and colour. Footwear is no different, with an eye-watering array of designs and colourways marketed in brand owners’ collections. When did the availability of coloured footwear actually become the norm? Perhaps surprisingly, many centuries ago.

Until comparatively recent decades, leather was by far the most common material for footwear uppers, and historical records show that coloured leather has been around for quite a while. Looking at leather footwear unearthed during archaeological excavations, you would be excused in thinking that all shoes and boots in the far-flung past were black. However, this colouring was created as a result of being in the ground. Most ancient footwear was made from brown leather (the colour derived from the vegetable tannins used) and there are also shoes that when examined closely show traces of red – possibly derived from ochre, insects, plant roots or a similar source.

If you had the money…

In the 1600s, shoes were light in colour for those with money and social standing – with even white leather versions being produced for smart wear. This finish was achieved by using buff leather or suede, as well as alum-tanned leather which was white. ‘Tawing’, which uses aluminium salts (alum), is one of the oldest mineral tanning processes. Although darker in colour, boots were also made in a variety of colours, generally dark brown, chestnut, black and occasionally dark grey. Of course, the ordinary man or woman in the street – who could not claim to be wealthy – wore lower-priced footwear, which was mainly finished in brown or black.

Interestingly, red heels and soles are not new phenomena – these were also seen as desirable in the early 17th century, especially in the French court. Their popularity grew and trickled down through the classes, even crossing over the Channel to Britain. Nevertheless, into the 1700s, the average person’s shoes remained black or brown, with white leather worn for court. However, things were soon to change – primarily with women’s footwear.

Then around the mid-17th century, women’s higher-priced shoes became more colourful and patterned, with the popularity of covering the upper material with printed silks and utilising embroidered textiles as the upper itself. Women would sometimes embroider the uppers themselves and take these to a shoemaker to be made into the required footwear. Embroidery patterns – often published in magazines of the day – became popular by the last quarter of the 18th century.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

A popular method of enhancing shoes in past centuries was to cover the uppers with brightly coloured textiles

Examples of the colours used at this time can be seen in the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery located In the English Midlands – the traditional home of the nation’s footwear producers. For instance, a pair of highly decorated ‘latchet tie’ shoes made in 1660 feature uppers made from blue velvet which have been embroidered with padded floral motifs in silver gilt thread. The textile uppers – which were quite delicate – were stitched to a narrow white leather rand, which enabled them to be affixed to the hard leather soles being used. One of the most popular embroidery styles utilised at that time was the bold ‘Bargello’ flame stitch zigzag pattern, often made in wool, canvas or silk.

During the 18th century, men’s footwear continued to be black or brown, decorated with a buckle until the 1780s. Additional colour was sometimes added with a hint of red leather for a trim or on the heel. More plain than women’s shoes, men’s footwear did, however, include a number of decorative aspects. For example, red heels were a favourite among aristocrats – a style which had been copied from the French courts of the 17th century.

Toward the end of the century, when shoe laces become the accepted form of fastening, red was popular for casual wear or for special occasions. At this time, the uppers of most women’s ‘smarter’ shoes were made from some form of textile. Painted leather was used, but this was not a common choice. As before, the ability to afford such colourful footwear meant that everyone of a ‘lower social standing’ would wear black or brown leather shoes. By the end of the 18th century, there was a passion for shoes influenced by Chinese chinoiserie. As an example, the Northampton Museum’s collection includes some women’s shoes from that date which were finished in green.

When leather became really colourful

As footwear production moved into the 1800s, having colour on a shoe no longer relied heavily on a stitched fabric covering. For instance, vegetable-tanned Morocco leather using natural dyes allowed for red, green, purple and other colours – and this was particularly used on men’s dress boots. Yellow leather became popular and was often chosen to decorate women’s shoes, when it was inserted behind shapes cut out of the vamp. Women wore a greater choice of colours, including blue, bronze and pink. From 1860, aniline dyes (the first of which was used to create purple or mauve uppers) became available. This opened up the market for colourful footwear, although these dyes did tend to fade. This led to the introduction of synthetic dyes which came in brighter and more vivid colours than previously seen.

During the first decades of the 20th century, women’s shoes made with coloured suede were popular in green, grey, mauve and khaki. Gold and other metallic leathers were very desirable in the twenties and thirties for women, and a huge variety of coloured leathers had become available. Certainly by this time, the limited palette used by shoemakers in previous centuries was a thing of the past, and the tanning and colouring of leather continued to progress through the succeeding decades.

The next step in colourful uppers

Then something dramatic happened. Following the Second World War, the introduction of synthetic materials that were derived from the petrochemical industry contributed to further growth in the range of colours available to shoe designers and producers. This has now transferred into the incredible selection of shades offered to producers of knitted uppers. The result is, as mentioned at the outset, that consumers – whether buying shoes with leather, synthetic or knitted uppers, are almost guaranteed to find just the colour they really want – if they are willing to look hard enough. 

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 28 of the July/August 2023 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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