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.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

All About Shoes

All About Shoes

From Canada's Bata Shoe Museum comes a visually impressive exhibit focusing on the history of the shoe from traditi… [read review or visit site]

Virtual Shoe Museum

Virtual Shoe Museum

This virtual museum from Shoe Icons Publishing showcases over 800 pairs of shoes and related reference information.… [read review or visit site]

Most watched eBay auctions    

$995.00 Auth Christian Louboutin Survivita White Gold Spike Pumps 37.5 Us 7.5Christian Louboutin Black Spiked Pumps Peep Toe Size 40.Christian Louboutin Tucsy Two-tone Leather Pumps Size 39Stuart Weitzman Highland Black Suede Over The Knee Boots Womens Size 7.5 MChristian Louboutin Black Sexy Strapi Studded Ankle Strap Sandals Size 36Stuart Weitzman Highland Topo Suede Over Knee Boot Size 7.5m Rh10621Valentino Garavani Rockstud Pumps, Eur 38Red Wing Boots, Iron Ranger Style No. 8111 Amber (usa Size 9d)Gucci Brown Susan Suede Horsebit Ankle Boots $925 Size 38.5Frye Melissa Tote, Nwt!!!Tieks By Gavrielli Size 8 Lavender Snake Foldable Leather Ballet FlatsAuthentic Stuart Weitzman Lowland Black Suede Stretch Over The Knee Boots 6Stuart Weitzman - Lowland Boot; Black Suede; Size 7.5mRed Wing Boots W/ Box, Lace Up, 6" Amber, Leather, Model 8111, Iron RangerValentino Blush Patent Leather Rockstud Slingback Pumps Size 37Chanel Lambskin Cc Espadrilles 39 Black Flats 146136Nib Christian Louboutin Boots$1400 Auth Christian Louboutin So Kate 120 Pump Heels Python Snake Skin Eu40 Us9Maison Martin Margiela Black Futuristic Tabi Split Toe Boots Size 38 TotokaeloWesco Black Leather Tall Motorcycle Harness Custom Boots 11Jimmy Choo Black Lucy Suede Ankle Strap Pumps Size 37.5Christian Louboutin Orange So Kate Suede Booties Size 37Christian Louboutin Rantus Orlato Flat Anthracite Cotton Mens Sneakers Size 11 NChanel Cc Logo Black Beige Quilted Leather Ballet Flats Shoes 36.5 6.5Christian Louboutin Blush Patent Leather Pointed Toe Stiletto Pumps Size 40 10Christian Louboutin Black Simple Leather Platform Ankle Boots Size 38Tieks Brown Leather Ballet Flats Womens Size 9100% Authentic Chanel Logo Black Beige Canvas Classic Espadrilles Flats Sz 39Custom Adidas Ultra Boost 1.0 Size 10, Triple Black, Athletic SneakerNo. 6 Sven Shearling Lined Brown Leather Wooden Clog Boots 39Frye Mellisa Sz 8 B Brown Pebbled Leather Women's Ankle Round Toe BootsTieks Leather Flats Chestnut Size 9 Worn OnceRed Wing Heritage Boots Cap Toe Iron Ranger 6" 8111 Amber Leather BrownViberg Service Boot Size 8Christian Louboutin Harvanana Flat Veau Velours Black Spike Suede Loafers Sz43Valentino Dark Denim Rockstud Pebbled Leather Flats Size 38Buscemi 100mm Black 9 42 Leather Lace Up High Top Fashion Sneaker Shoe $890Christian Louboutin Nude Alta Nana Patent Leather Platform Pumps Size 38.5Vintage Vans Usa Era Multi Checkers Sneakers Skate Shoes Old School Nos Size 8 Saint Laurent Paris Slp Ysl Sl 10h Royal Blue And Black Sneakers Sz 42 Jordan 1Euc Tieks By Gavrieli Italian Leather Matte Black Ballet Flats Size 8Mens Christian Louboutin Louis Strass SneakersNo. 6 Sven Shearling Lined Black Leather And Suede Wooden Clog Boots 39Rare Brioni By Lattanzi Chestnut Brown Norvegese Stitch Ankle Boots Shoes 9 A1pStuart Weitzman Lowland Black Suede Over The Knee Boots Womens Size 6.5 MAuthentic Christian Louboutin Ostri Sling - Size 39Stuart Weitzman Highland Black Suede Over Knee Boot Size 6.5m Rh10620En Noir X Buscemi 125mm Black Leather High-tops Men's Sneakers Size 10 N703Louis Vuitton Brown Leather Logo Cutout T-strap Sandals Size 39.5Frye Melissa Tote. Nwot Vintage Vans Usa Old Skool Black Checkers Sneakers Skate Old School Nos Size 7Womens Christian Louboutin Tucsick 100 Patent/glitter Black Ivory 39.5 Pumps NrRm Williams Craftsman Boots 8g CfLucchese Cigar Caiman Crocodile Leather Cowboy Boots Men 12 D T3187 R4 Pre-ownedRed Wing Heritage Beckman Boots 6" Inch Cigar Featherstone Size 10.5 D, PristineOld Gringo L1642-2 Womens 9.5 Nadia Black Boots No ReserveStuart Weitzman Highland Over The Knee BootsChristian Louboutin Black Daffodile Leather Platform Pumps Size 38.5Lnib Adidas S79478 Nmd Nomad R1 Boost Primeknit Runner Black White Sneakers 10.5Chanel Espadrilles Black Soft Leather Size 38