Sunday, February 6, 2011


This weekend I spent a couple days in the second part of a four part workshop on making 18th century ladies shoes.  It is extremely in depth, taught by one of the shoemakers from Colonial Williamsburg, Brett Walker.  I want to try to talk about the general history and construction of shoes from that period.  It's a huge subject to try and sum up in one post, but I can honestly say I'm not well versed enough in shoes to make a long stretch of posts (but I hope to be!).  What I'm going to try to do here is get rid of a few "myths" and give you a better knowledge in purchasing or making your own shoes (including a few recommended shoemakers).  As a topic rarely touched upon, please let me know if you have questions or if you would like anything explained in a more in depth manner.

First, the anatomy of a shoe.  I highly recommend getting to know these terms, not only will it help you in recognizing the time period of a shoe, but you can use them if you order anything custom so you'll get exactly what you're looking for.

The Vamp is the frontal part of the shoes which covers the toe area.
The Quarters cover from the back and can continue up and over, extending into straps for the buckle.
The Tongue is an extension of the Vamp which continues up above the buckle.
The Heel is a wooden piece that lifts the back of the shoe.

The Toe is the tip of the last or shoe.
The Joint is measured behind the toes, the "ball" of the foot.
The Instep is the top of the foot where the bone drops down.
The Heel is the very back of the foot/last.

A wooden Last is what a shoe is built over.
The Upper refers to the Quarter and Vamp (fabric portion).
The Sole is the bottom piece of leather which wears against the ground.
The Insole is inside of the shoe on the bottom, between sole and foot.
A shoes Lining can be made of leather or linen.
The Binding that covers the raw edges of the shoe can be linen, leather, or silk.
Toe-spring refers to how closely the toe of the shoe sits to the ground or bends upward.
A Rand is a small, folded piece of white leather that is inserted between the Sole and Upper.
A Randed shoe has a Rand and is made right-side out on a Last.
A Turned shoe is made inside-out on the Last, then turned.  It has no Rand.

Next I have a variety of shoe images from across the 18th century.  All of these are taken from the Shoe Icon website.

The first shoe is from 1720-40.  Notice the large floral design on the fabric, this is only popular during the first half of the century.  The toe is very pointed and has a fair amount of toe spring.  The heel is large, almost clunky.  The quarters are short, only about half of the overall length and the tongue is very long, extending about an inch above the straps.  I will note here that despite being a large tongue, it is not "gathered" up into a fan shape.  Where that idea came from I have no idea, but to my knowledge (and that of far more reliable sources) they didn't exist in the 18th century.  And last, but not least, the white rand above the sole.
This shoe is dated 1750-1760.  It has a very different look than the first.  The heel is still fairly large, but no where near a clunky heel.  The fabric is plain weave corded silk, although floral brocades were still popular at this time.  The toe is round and has very little spring.  The quarters have begun to lengthen as well, but the tongue still shows far above.  Rands have fallen out of style at this point as well.

The third shoe is from 1775-85.  The heel has narrowed considerably into an Italian heel.  The toe has brought back some of the point, but no spring.  Brocades are out, replaced by solids, small stripes, or very petite designs.  The tongue is shorter and becomes pointed for this small window of time.  The use of Whit-taw (white tawed leather) on the buckle straps seems to be limited to this time as well.  The quarters have lengthened to about 2/3 of the total.

This shoe is 1790-1805.  The toe is very pointed and the heel very short, but still tiny.  Buckle straps have disappeared and gone out of style, leaving the instep uncovered.  Decorating with small bows or trim seem a popular way to replace the buckle.
This pair is also from 1790-1805, but seems to exhibit what is to come in the next century far better than the last pair.  The heel has disappeared almost completely, if one can call a slightly thicker leather at the back a "heel".  The point occasionally has some toe spring, but not always.  The cut-work and tambouring on the toe are is a very popular decoration during this time as well.

Now that we know the basics of what a shoe looks like, what is it made of?  And what variations existed?

If you ever visit a re-enactment or costumed museum site *ahem*, it seems to be that 90% of all ladies wear black leather shoes with little or no heel.  The only ones who don't have on fancy silk gowns.  It isn't truly the case.  Did black leather shoes exist?  Yes.  But who wore them?  Garsault specifically says that leather shoes are for the "low, mean sort".  Records show them being given to the poor by the church.  I will follow this up by saying that the European continent (especially farther East) tended to have antiquated and simple tastes with shoes.  This example may have come from that area where plain leather shoes were a bit more common.  Just step out of modern ideas and think about it, leather may be durable but it was cheap at that point (not an upgrade like today).  Black may "go with everything" today, but it would be awfully boring to only own black shoes EVER.  Women way out in the wilderness were ordering fabric shoes rather than leather, and a quick perusal of the VA Gazette shows more listings for Calimanco, Satin, and Silk than leather!

You will see black shoes in a great deal of art from the 18th century.  Whether this was just a simple way to draw/paint them or they truly all wore black shoes is hard to say.  In the Gazette listings of coloured Satins and Silks were often mentioned and I saw one specific mention of Black Calimanco.  I did see one Black Leather listing, but it was in the children/youth shoe mentions, not womens.  Sturdy silks and wools were much more elegant and could still stand up to a lot of wear.

Not all leather shoes were of poor quality.  Nicer, colorful leathers were available and a bit stylish.  What you have to remember is unlike today, leather was not "better".  Leather car seats or sofas are an upgrade now.  Not back then.  Leather was cheap and easily available.  Yes, it is durable, but do we all wear work-boots all the time just because they wouldn't wear out??  Fashion was important, even for the ladies who were far out in the wilderness.

Brocades and Damasks were a popular, fairly durable, option for shoes up until about the 1770s.  Designs weren't always huge and colorful.  The narrow stripes on this shoe are a bit deceptive, hinting at popular styles to come in the late 1770s, while the overall silhouette shows this shoe to be from 1750-70.

This shoe is made from a lovely silk satin and unusually trimmed with fringe and a large rosette instead of a buckle.  This pair is dated to 1780.  The small heel, pointed toe, and pointed tongue date it even without some of the more obvious signs.

Also in a silk satin, this pair uses a single, trimmed bow to replace a buckle and straps.  The heel is a bit larger, but it still dates to the 1780s.  Some ladies were, perhaps, a bit more practical or less sturdy on their feet.

This is a ladies slipper.  It was meant to be worn about the house, although you do see some images of laundresses wearing them for working.  It's made on the same last as a normal shoe.

 Not all shoes made were "wearable".  Just like some of the extreme shoes of today, they too had their experiments.  One doesn't have to wonder how this pair survived the years.  I'd be surprised if it was ever worn!

Overshoes were a very practical way to keep your soles and heels from wearing out and protecting the fabric uppers from rain or dirt.  This pair is open, but some did cover the toe area of the shoe.  They were built to fit a sister shoe exactly, the ridge in the middle is filled with cork.

Overshoes didn't have to cover all of the shoe either.  This pair, from the 1790s, covers only the toe area.  It attached using a small strap that went around the heel.  Being of leather it probably did more to protect the fabric or toe tip than the sole.


Anonymous said...

Interesting! Can you recommend a book about this subject? Especially about the black leather shoes.

Unknown said...

The best book I've found so far is Al Saguto's translation of Garsault's "Art of the Shoemaker". There aren't very many that cover the subject, other than general books of imagery. Which, while pretty, do very little to get an idea of what all people wore, just what few survived. If you want to know more I highly recommend contacting the Colonial Williamsburg Shoemakers, they know a lot more than I and are very helpful!

Alexa said...

What shoes would you recommend for women to wear while in camp, when we're wearing things similar to your pumpkin camlet and madder linen anglaise gowns? I realize in camp one needs to be practical, but we'd prefer not to be "low and mean" ;) I assume most fabric would not deal well with getting wet, and there always seems to be wet grass in the mornings. I have leather shoes now, but should I switch to something like a canvas?

ColeV said...

Calimanco seems to be the most popular type of shoe, which is a very heavy worsted wool. I've heard very good things about Eaton Hill Textile Works for that sort of fabric. Just like a cloak, it would be fairly waterproof. Leather is certainly still a popular 18th century choice, and if you do want that mud/water proof fabric just use a color. I found records for blue, green, and red Moroccan leather. Portraits for the middling sort show a lot of orange, red, tan, and green. I have a pair of olive leather for muddy days. Having bound edges also seems to be a step up (some images show contrasting binding even) which could be done to any shoe easily.

Alexa said...

oooh I like the idea of bound edges for now :) Personalizing my shoes is always a plus. Do you have any recommendations of books/websites where I could find information on what the binding should ideally look like/what to use?

Thanks so much for your advice!!

ColeV said...

The Shoe Icon site is the only one that has a good variety of close-up images. The common bindings were leather, silk grosgrain, and linen tape. I'm sure just about any type of tape would work, just silk satin would wear down quickly. I'm using silk grosgrain on mine, from Wm Booth, dyed yellow.

Ruth said...

What a great post, thanks, I found it really useful.

Anonymous said...

I have 2 pairs of shoes from NP Historical Shoes! They fit perfectly, are extremely well made, and the owners are very nice to work with.

Hana - Marmota said...

The NP Historical Shoes are Slovakian. But I couldn't find out more from their site - apparently, they keep their exact address secret. And move around a lot on events...