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English, ca. 1740s–50s

Shoes are an invention of necessity, designed to protect feet from the elements. Over the centuries, women’s footwear has taken on a vast spectrum of forms, proving that sartorial display has been a motivation that often surpassed practicality. As accessories of luxurious materials and expert construction, these mid-eighteenth-century silk shoes epitomize the delicacy and opulence of feminine wardrobes of the Rococo age.

Though elegant, high-heeled French models were the pinnacle of fashionable footwear throughout most of Europe, they were decried in England as frivolous and overly sensual—even indecent. English women often preferred more comfortable styles, especially with regard to heel shape and height. These shoes have relatively low, curved heels with gracefully proportioned waists which correspond to English sensibilities. Though more stable and maneuverable than spindly French heels, much of the ease of low heels still mattered on placement: if set too far under the instep, or sloped at an abrupt angle, the foot might slip backwards causing damage to the back quarters or, worse, bodily harm. In 1753, an English fashion publication humorously cautioned against Francophilic choices in footwear: “Mount on French Heels when you go to the Ball, ‘tis the fashion to totter and show you can fall.” Perhaps evidence of the original wearer’s preference to reserve them for special occasions, these shoes are in immaculate condition.

Several notable features of eighteenth-century shoe design are seen here. As was most footwear of the century, these are fashioned as “straights”—made to conform to either foot, without left or right definition. Because the suppleness of woven fabrics (in this case, figured silk satin for the exteriors and plainweave linen for the linings) allowed shoes to mold to the shape of the foot, switching between either side on a regular basis was one way to avoid excessive wear. White kid rands—slender strips of leather inserted between the uppers and the soles—were prominent from the end of the seventeenth century until the 1760s. Yellow ribbon binds the tongues, the upper edges of the quarters, the dog-leg seams and the latchets. By mid-century, latchets had slipped to a lower position on the vamps so that larger, more extravagant buckles could be displayed.

Women's Shoes of Figured Silk Satin

Though the gently rounded toes are specific to English shoes of the 1740s–50s, the silk dates to the 1710s. Still suitably rich, and certainly too expensive to cast off, the reuse of earlier, outdated silks for mid-century shoes was common. Because the emphasis was on harmonizing colors rather than matching materials, sumptuous fabrics recycled this way ensured that shoes could coordinate with many different gowns. This particular silk—ivory satin with a stylized yellow pattern of overlapping rings, spiky foliate motifs with curlicue flourishes and fan-shaped flowers studded with tiny stars enclosed within crenellated medallions—is reminiscent of Bizarre patterns drawn by Spitalfields designer and weaver James Leman. A comparable pair of shoes, with similar mid-century features made from an early-eighteenth-century silk, is in the Victoria & Albert Museum collection (T.443&A1913).

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