Shoes literally ground women’s fashion. Sometimes the statements they make are loud, as in the bold look of brightly colored, zippered, vinyl go-go boots from the 1960s. Other times, shoes call attention to themselves with barely a whisper—the embroidered velvet slippers of the mid-Victorian era come to mind.
Most 19th-century shoes were known as straights, which means that the right and left shoes were interchangeable. It was only later in the century that shoes became crooked, a reference to the curve in the sole of the shoe to account for the mirrored shapes of our left and right feet. The switch from straight to crooked was especially helpful when it came to boots or shoes with buckles or buttons, which tended to be placed on the outsides of the footwear.
In the early 1900s, shoemakers made boots of purple leather, with 2 1/2-inch Louis XV heels. Some made their boots out of brown or gray suede, with long strings of buttons running up each side. Other boots of the period were laced through as many as 18 pairs of eyelets, which probably meant that women had to factor in the time it would take to get their shoes on before heading out for the evening.
Heeled slippers, with or without straps, sometimes featured crystals on their buckles. Slingback slippers with lace rosettes on their fronts (known in the shoe business as the vamp) were variations on the mule, which went back to the 18th century and enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in the 1950s.
As with many other articles of women’s fashion, shoes blossomed in the 1920s, in part because of the inventions that manufacturers had to devise when materials were in short supply during World War I.
With the shorter skirts of the flapper era came the desire to show off the feet. Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, and other major department stores sold brocade or leather strapped pumps by Salvatore Ferragamo and others. Red silk paired with gold leather was not uncommon, but the decade also had its share of sensible shoes, such as those made by Dr. Scholl’s of Chicago.
Even as the stock market sunk in the 1930s, heels continued to climb. High-heeled pumps and sandals were now the uniform for eveningwear, secured to the feet with ankle or t-straps. Wedge-soled shoes made an appearance, as did shoes made of woven fabrics, snakeskin, and even mesh. New shoe fabrics such as faille were experimented with, as were more traditional materials such as calico prints...
World War II caused designers to once again consider non-traditional materials for their shoes. Wood sandals joined felt wedges and lace-up, open-toe, sling-back alligator pumps in what was, despite the war, a crowded shoe field. Satin mules with oversize fabric rosettes on their vamps were the choice for wearing around the home.
After the war, mesh or leather oxfords, sometimes called Mamma shoes, were in high demand. Bakelite was used in the buttons of shoes, and cork filled the insides of platforms, which grew increasingly thick as the decade came to a close.
The 1950s offer some of the best shoes for fans of vintage fashion, especially for those who enjoy wearing their collection. Pumps with stiletto heels and pointed toes were the decade’s signature look—some heels were so spiky that certain buildings banned women from wearing them due to the damage they caused to floors.
A few manufacturers made their heels from clear Lucite; others used clear plastic on the vamp to better show off the foot. In addition to leather dyed in all colors of the rainbow, shoes came in everything from silk damask and brocade to burlap and woven plastic.
Round-toe Mary Janes with t-straps and a variety of buckles gave pointy toe stilettos a run for their money in the 1960s. Mules and ballet flats, or skimmers, were worn for comfort, while platform sandals and oxfords were a good choice for running errands.
Mid-calf boots in suede and vinyl were made for walking and dancing. Designer André Courrèges, produced a short white boot in 1964 that became the much-copied go-go boot. And if you wanted to make a splash at the pool, slipping into a pair of thong sandals with clusters of pink and green beads on the vamp was almost guaranteed to do the trick.
In the 1970s, shoes went seriously disco. Thick cork wedges, sometimes left exposed, sometimes covered with woven rope, were ubiquitous, as were platform strappy sandals, covered in gold glister and ribbon.
But by the 1980s and ’90s, a new crop of shoe designers had arrived, finding inspiration in mid-20th-century shoemakers such as André Perugia and Mehmet Kurdash, whose company, Gina, remains an influential force in shoe fashions today. This wave included Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo in London and Christian Louboutin in Paris, who owes no small debt to fellow Frenchman Roger Vivier.
Other contemporary shoe designers came out of the pop- and punk-fashion schools, if school is even the right word for such anarchy. Terry de Havilland made shoes in the swinging ’60s for rock royalty such as the Jaggers, while Vivienne Westwood, a pioneer of 1970s punk style, continues to make some of the world’s most outrageous fashions for the feet.