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English or American (with American family history), ca. 1750s

Of delicate materials and sinuous lines, these mid-eighteenth-century ladies' shoes highlight the confluence of Rococo and feminine ideals of the age. Women of quality dressed lavishly from head to toe, and accessories were of utmost importance in completing an elegant toilette. The colors and fabrics of fashionable women's shoes typically reflected the splendor of their clothing; on occasion shoes were made to match specific ensembles, but more often they were paired with similarly hued gowns for a coordinated effect.

Though the construction of eighteenth-century shoes was relatively uncomplicated, it required specialized skills. In the hands of the cobbler, expensive silks were manipulated into shoes of refinement befitting the ladies who wore them. Uppers and soles were cut out separately and then adapted to the shape of the last, which was for most of the century the same for both feet. Once stitched together, shoes were usually lined with kid, silk or canvas, and the combination of fragile materials forming the whole called for a high degree of expertise. In 1747, The London Tradesman reported: “It is much more ingenious to make a Woman's shoe than a Man's: Few are good at both, they are frequently two distinct Branches; the Woman's Shoemaker requires much neater Seams as the Materials are much finer. They employ Women to bind their shoes and sew the Quarters together, when they are made of Silk, Damask or Calimanco.” The silk used here, dating to ca. 1748-50, is a prime example of the Spitalfields (London) weaving industry production at mid-century. The essence of English Rococo was typically distilled into naturalistic rendering of botanical detail with flowers casually scattered across an open ground, often ivory in color, in asymmetrical arrangements suggesting fresh gatherings from field or garden. This particular weave—called tobine during the period—is characterized by ribs that create an appearance of small monochrome checks and often featured self-colored patterning and brocaded floral motifs, such as seen here. Roses and buds, in shades of pink, red and brown, decorate the rounded toes, not exactly matching in terms of placement but each one echoing the other; the sculpted, covered heels are precisely matched and display apricot carnations on stems. Elsewhere on the quarters are hints of peach and blue flowers, as well as curling green leaves. Pale robin's egg-blue silk tape binds the dogleg seams and latchets, which were secured by paste or metal buckles for decorative flourish

The American provenance of these shoes connects them to Fanny Bemis (1771-1852), daughter of Sarah Bemis (néeWhite, born in Framingham, Massachusetts in 1737 and died in Spencer, Massachusetts, 1791). They may have been the shoes worn on the occasion of Sarah White's marriage to Joshua Bemis (1729-1789) on September 18th, 1755. These shoes are likely of English origin and were imported, as the luxury shoe industry in the Colonies, though burgeoning in the 1750s was not fully established until the end of the century; it is, however, possible that they were made in an American workshop catering to a wealthy clientele.

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