In the early 1900s, a woman’s ankle was usually hidden from view by a long, flowing skirt. When women wore what were known as high shoes or boots, their feet were doubly protected from prying eyes. Some boots of the period were laced through as many as 18 pairs of eyelets, while others were fastened with a dozen or more black glass buttons. No wardrobe malfunctions here.
Shoes and boots alike often rode on 2-to-3-inch Louis XV heels. Brown and gray suede was a popular material, as was kid leather, which was often stained in iridescent purple or splashy gold. Around the house, heeled satin slippers, with or without straps in the back, sometimes featured fur, fabric rosettes, or crystals on their vamps. Some of these early-20th-century shoes seem precursors to the mule, which would enjoy a huge resurgence after World War II.
As the short skirts of the flapper era in the 1920s took hold, shoemakers created footwear 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 other European designers. 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.
As the stock market crash of 1929 gave way to the Great Depression, heels began to climb. High-heeled pumps and evening sandals were now common, secured to the feet with ankle or t-straps. Thanks to Ferragamo, wedge-soled shoes were embraced, as were shoes made of silk and velvet. Among the high-end retailers who sold pricey shoes during these tough economic times were Henri Bendel of New York and Geuting’s of Philadelphia.
World War II caused designers to consider non-traditional materials for their shoes. In Mussolini’s Italy, which was increasingly isolated from its traditional trading partners, Ferragamo had already turned to plentiful Sardinian cork, which he stacked in layers to create platform soles. Now, in the 1940s, 1-to-2-inch platforms were sandwiched under the toes of pumps, too, which allowed the heels in the back to be even higher.
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 exuded a sultry film-noir-look, and after the war, mesh and leather oxfords, sometimes called Mamma shoes, were in high demand.