Historical Costume, 1790-1830 : Shoes, slippers

riding boot with spurWhy shoes? Well, a few weeks ago, I was ranting about boots. Specifically, the fact that, in images intended for Regency covers, all the male models seem to wear knee-high boots, even with evening dress.

This kind of boot, from the Wade costume collection at Berrington Hall, really doesn’t look appropriate for evening, does it? Imagine dancing with a man wearing those 😉

To be fair, the cover images don’t normally include spurs, as this original does, carefully separated by tissue paper to protect the boot’s leather.

I haven’t found a cure for the boot problem yet—other than cropping out the blasted things—but it gave me the idea of doing a blog about footwear.

And, for the record, an example of the kind of shoe the gents should wear with evening dress is below. (Yes, I admit they look more like slippers to us, but the V&A says they’re shoes.)

men's velvet shoes 1805-10 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

men’s velvet shoes 1805-10 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Right and left shoes?

When I was looking at historical examples of footwear, I realised that right and left shoes were usually the same. Interchangeable. That was a surprise.

evening shoe, Berrington Hall collection

evening shoe, Berrington Hall Wade collection

If you look closely at the shoe above, you’ll see that the owner clearly wore it on the right foot. And it’s meant for the right foot, because the decoration is on the outer edge. But if you look at the insole, you’ll see that it is symmetrical, to fit either foot. So, do we conclude that shoes came the same shape and you then wore them in to fit particular feet?

evening shoe, Berrington Hall collection, close-up of heel and insole

evening shoe, Berrington Hall Wade collection, close-up of heel and insole

leather shoes, 1810, Hereford collection

leather shoes, 1810, Hereford collection

I puzzled for some time, trying to decipher the writing on the insole. I thought it was the owner’s name. D’oh! When I changed the contrast on the image to produce the versions here, I could see that the word is “Droit”, the French for right. So when these shoes were new, the shoemaker or the owner wrote inside them to indicate which shoe went on which foot.
Proving my point?

This pair of leather shoes (shown right), dating from about 1810, looks to me like two right feet. Do you agree?

They are very pointed, with damage on the points, and obviously well worn by their owner. They have leather soles with a very small flat heel.

Comfort? Support? Not much

Chartreuse heeled evening shoes, Hereford collection

Chartreuse heeled evening shoes, Hereford collection

These astonishing chartreuse yellow shoes, with black decoration, are also symmetrical.

The colour remains extremely bright, even today. Chartreuse yellow-green may have looked a lot less startling by candelight, of course. I showed Regency gowns trimmed with a similar colour in my earlier post about bosom and ankle detail.

These shoes are more substantial than some. They have leather soles and a small black leather heel, even though the body of the shoes is quite flimsy. They probably date from the 1790s as elaborate heeled styles went out of fashion in the 1800s. Not sure they’d have been comfortable to walk in. Those incredibly pointed toes!

They look almost new. Were they so uncomfortable to wear than their owner dumped them, I wonder? Or maybe she had only one evening gown she could wear them with?

evening slipper, Hereford collection

evening slipper, Hereford collection

Very pointed evening slippers must have been fashionable. Here is another pair, in a creamy beige.

You can see from the front view that they were very pointed indeed. And the side view shows that there was precious little foot support being provided by the slipper itself. A night of dancing must have meant very tired feet, don’t you think? (Not much different from nowadays, then?)

Regency evening slipper, Hereford collection

Regency evening slipper, Hereford collection

This 1817 French print of a ballgown (and also a blue walking dress) shows that the flimsy flat evening slippers were still in vogue then, though it’s also clear that they were secured by ankle ties. As you can see, the slippers are still pointed, though perhaps not as much as earlier.

1817 ballgown and walking dress © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

1817 ballgown and walking dress showing flat shoes with ties © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

heeled leather shoes, decorated front, Berrington collectionOutdoor shoes with greater support

This is a much more substantial pair of shoes, in leather, with a small heel, from the Berrington Hall Wade collection. Date, probably pre-1800. The front of the shoe is highly decorated.

You can see from the underneath that the shoes are still symmetrical. Also very pointed.

They look as if they’ve been worn enough to make each shoe conform—a bit—to the shape of right and left feet. But actually, the sole shows little wear at all.

Pointed toes not for walking very far?

1790s embroidered green leather heeled shoes © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

1790s embroidered green leather heeled shoes © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

I found an even more extravagantly decorated pair in the V&A collection. These very pointed shoes date from the 1790s and the green leather has been cut out to reveal embroidered silk satin underneath. The heels are covered in white leather.

1790s embroidered green leather shoes, heel detail © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

1790s embroidered green leather shoes, heel detail © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Being made of leather, these green shoes would be substantial enough for walking but their owner would probably have been very careful about the weather—she definitely wouldn’t want rain or mud to spoil those embroidered toes, would she? We can also see that these shoes, though originally symmetrical, have been worn enough to have taken the shape of right and left feet.

walking shoes 1806-11 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

walking shoes 1806-11 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This pair of tan-coloured leather walking shoes (also in the V&A collection) looks almost modern, I think.

They do have pointed toes, but the points are less exaggerated than before. The style appears to be on the model of the gentleman’s velvet evening shoe shown earlier. Both date from around the same time.

Design of shoes changed, but when?

Spanish slipper, Berrington Hall collection

Spanish slipper, Wade collection Berrington Hall

At some stage, and I don’t know exactly when—if anyone out there does know, please share—the design of shoes and slippers changed. Shoes started to fit right and left feet.

The example of an evening slipper (left) is clearly for a left foot but, sadly,  I don’t have a date for it.

The original colour seems to have been a bright gold, but it’s been well worn. The toe area is a much duller colour and looks quite dirty.

But this slipper came from a shoemaker in Cadiz, not England. If you enlarge it [just click on the pic] you’ll be able to read the maker’s label on what is definitely a left-foot insole.

It’s noticeable that the Cadiz slipper doesn’t have the exaggerated point of some earlier shoes. That’s also true of the dark blue satin shoe below, which dates from about 1830. It reminds me of a ballet shoe with a blocked toe. It looks to have a lot more support for the foot than the earlier, flimsy slippers. And that tie should ensure that it wouldn’t slip off while the lady was on the dance floor. [Apologies for the poor focus on this one. My camera was dying at the time.]

dark blue satin slipper, 1830, Hereford collection

dark blue satin slipper, 1830, Hereford collection

Do you fancy wearing any of these? And do you know the answer to my puzzle about when shoes began to be designed specifically for left and right feet? If so, do please share.

Joanna who wears lace-ups

15 thoughts on “Historical Costume, 1790-1830 : Shoes, slippers

  1. Liz Fielding

    Such an interesting blog, Joanna. It never occurred to me that shoes hadn’t always been made for left and right feet. And the thought of dancing all night in some of those shoes made my feet ache just thinking about it!

    1. Joanna Post author

      Me too, on the aching feet, Liz 😉 And I only realised that right and left were the same when I saw real shoes in the flesh, so to speak, in the Hereford costume collection. It doesn’t hit you from pictures in the same way as seeing the real thing.

  2. Elizabeth Bailey

    Beautifully detailed, thank you. I wonder if the pointed shoes were in fact uncomfortable. I recall wearing winklepickers in my youth which also had a high heel. One’s toes ended some way before the point. Pointy shoes seem to have gone in and out of fashion through history. Middle ages had them too, no?
    Fascinated by the symmetrical insoles. Sadly don’t know when this changed.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Yes, I wore winklepickers, too, Liz. They weren’t that comfortable, as I remember, especially if the heels were really high because that pushed the toes into the point and squashed them together. These days, my poor feet are showing the effects as my chiropodist reminds me. And nowadays I buy shoes for comfort, first and foremost.
      Funnily enough, my very first published short story (in People’s Friend) was about a pair of white winklepickers.

      1. Joanna Post author

        Ha! I may have discovered my answer. In the wikipedia article on shoes, the history section says this:
        “Until around 1800, welted rand shoes were commonly made without differentiation for the left or right foot. Such shoes are now referred to as “straights”. Only gradually did the modern foot-specific shoe become standard.”
        That would fit with the dates of the shoes in my blog. But I’d never heard the term “straights” before.

  3. lesley2cats

    I was a craven shoe wearer. My points were moderate, as were my heels, and once I started flying – well! We had to change into flats once on the aircraft, anyway, and my chiropodists through the years have expressed surprised that my feet aren’t in worse condition. (She boasted) I’d never have coped with those shoes! However, slippers can still be found made for either foot – I’ve had some. Great article, Joanna.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I didn’t know about wearing flats on the aircraft, Lesley. Makes sense, of course. Well done on keeping your feet in better nick than mine 😉

  4. Louise Allen

    ‘Shoes’ by Pratt & Woolley (V&A 1999) mentions “The shaping of shoes to fit the left & right foot, from as early as the twelfth century…”
    Styles with side-lacing could only be worn on the correct foot but that didn’t necessarily mean that different shaped soles were used – I own a pair of c. 1820-30 which are side-laced but with identical soles. (Pictured here https://tinyurl.com/y238ttxy) You can see the pattern of wear on them, but the original shaping is identical. The National Trust book of shoes from the Snowshill collection has a pair of silk slippers of 1820s with shaped soles and a pair c1810-30, but none earlier. There’s a US tradition that right & left shoes were the invention of an American cobbler in 1817, but there is no evidence that applies to any but American shoes – I can’t find any reference to that influencing European shoe design

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks so much for this, Louise. I knew you would have at least some of the answers! Sounds as if the wiki suggestion of 1800-on is a bit early for shaped soles to fit different feet.

  5. Sheila Turner Johnston

    Fascinating as always, Joanna. I have large feet and getting a pair of comfortable shoes is a needle-in-a-haystack search. Just looking at those pointy toes makes me wince! Why would you do that to yourself? I’d be interested to know what size those shoes are. I imagine women’s feet from earlier centuries were smaller than ours. They probably couldn’t make the same style in lots of different sizes the way we can today, with modern methods. So would you just have to get the nearest fit you could? Blisters ahoy!

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks, Sheila. Most of the historical examples of shoes look very small to us. Not surprising, as the women of the time were also much smaller than us. You only have to look at the waist sizes of the gowns! (Admittedly corsets helped there.)
      Some of the answers to how shoes were sold are in the Louise Allen blog she references in her comment. It’s here and includes fascinating detail.

  6. jjackson42

    I wonder if it was similar at all for men’s shoes, or more specifically, boots. Thinking of my own feet, the idea of having to march for miles in symmetrical boots brings tears to my eyes even now.
    Needs must – and an army needs to march, and therefore must have suitable boots.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I have a huge portfolio of images but none of them provides the answer to your question, John. But I did find a fascinating piece about the industrial manufacture of army boots during the Napoleonic Wars here. It fell into disuse after the wars ended.

  7. Cynthia Zeiler

    As a history major 40 years ago, somehow I came across the history of shoes, specifically the development of right and left shoes. I don’t remember where I read about it, but learned that the practice became common mid-century 1800s. Supposedly it was in the US possibly connected with the Civil War, or with the Industrial Revolution. This article has some interesting info: https://philmaffetone.com/shoe-history/

    1. Joanna Post author

      Welcome, Cynthia, and thanks for the link. Interesting. It seems that producing right and left designs became more common as the century progressed. Examples seem to be pretty rare before 1810-1820, at least in Europe. What happened in the US could well have been very different.

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