Shoes! History of the Heel from 1500-1910
October 14, 2011
The Cinderella Dilemma
Beginning in Roman times, but bursting into popularity in the 16th and 17th centuries, platform “chopine” shoes were what the fashionable girls, especially in Spain, were wearing. These heavy chopines were made from stacking layers of cork or cotton and stitching them together with a fine silk, leather, or velvet cover. At the height of their popularity, they totted at an amazing 40cm (20 inches) or more! When they were taller than 14 or so centimeters, chopines were almost impossible to walk in and required canes or escorts to help the noblewoman walk. The horror stories of pregnant women falling and laws banning brides from falsifying their height at weddings led to a decrease in the chopine’s popularity. By the 1600s, wooden heels began to replace the chopin. Both men and women snapped up these new heels and the elevated shoe would remain popular for both sexes until the late 19th century.
18th Century Shoes were all about romance and opulence. Ladies’ shoes were delicate affairs made from silk and brocade. These whisper-thin slippers couldn’t survive much outdoor walking, so most came with matching “pattens,” which were an extra sturdy sole that tied onto the bottom of the shoe. Heeled shoes were all the rage, but since they were carved from wood and not very sturdy, most heels were between 1cm and 6cm high, though some overtly sexy fetish shoes with enormous heels have been found. The heel wasn’t located right under the heel, as most are today. They were waisted (or wasted) heels, called Louis heels after the French king, placed closer to the instep. Almost all footwear sported a trendy pointed toe and a myriad of gorgeous, ornate buckles. One of the most famous shoes from the 18th century is a delicate pink mule flying through the air in the paintings of Watteau and Fragonard.
Regency shoes (as discussed in this post as well) also had pointed toes, but instead of high heels, they were flatter, with only the smallest heel on walking boots to elevate the pedestrian out of the mud. Slippers were still the favored shoe and were fashioned of silk or cotton, often elaborately printed.
Early Victorian or Romantic shoes were still low-heeled, but all those delicate slippers wore out too easily to be economical and comfortable, so boots began to come into fashion for both men and women. Early Victorian boots were made like Regency walking boots, but in finer fabrics. Button-up boots became popular and the addition of a flexible gusset allowed for easier wearing. Square toes replaced pointed as the preferred shape. By the American Civil War in the 1860s, heels were beginning to rise. Instead of placing the heel close to the insole, however, these new heels were located at the very back of the shoe (Dancing pumps, however, retained the inset waisted heel until the invention of the steel heel support in the 20th century) . Ironically, as shoes became more practical, ladies wished to have their feet look as thin as possible, a trend that began with Madame Pompadour in the 18th Century and would continue into the 20th Century. Some women would tape their feet smaller or even sacrifice a toe to fit into narrow boots. Narrow, tight shoes became as ridiculed as over-tightened corsets as the 19th century wore on.
In the 1880s, high-top laced boots became popular and remained so through the 1910s. Queen Victoria’s mourning for her husband created a fashion trend toward darker colors, but by the Gay Nineties, all manner of boots were made, some still study, practical leather for public walking, but many in bright silk brocades and embroidered with patterns, fluffed with ribbons, and decorated with beads. A slightly rounded-point toe and highly-fitted silhouette marks the late Victorian shoe, creating a dainty, lady-like look with a slight edge so popular with Neo-Victorian fashionistas today. Beginning in the 1870s, shoes gained a heavily sexuality of their own. A woman flashing her ankle from beneath her heavy skirts was as taboo as flashing her breasts. Super high heels became all the rage in the underground, tottering to massive heights in the fetish community, just as they do today.
The much-overlooked Edwardian shoe saw the lowering of the boot-tops back down to the ankle, and pumps became common for everyday. The Edwardians loved dainty, airy decoration as opposed to the heavy Victorian style which had reigned for nearly a century. Sturdier mass-production methods allowed heels to become slimmer. Since less fabric was needed to hold the shoe together, Mary-Jane styles with low-cut vamps and thin straps allowed patterned stockings to peep through. As the Edwardian period came to a close, skirts became less voluminous, so matching your shoes to your dress became a necessity.
All of the pictures in this article are linked to to sites detailing each section, so feel free to click and explore!
For more information about choosing the right shoes for your period costume, visit Recreating Shoes from 1500-1910