Miss Shoes – Shoes you almost Missed

Shoes for the Discerning Indian Woman

Shoes in 18th Century Europe (1700’s) October 26, 2009

I had once picked up a beautiful coffee table book from Landmark in Calcutta (it is now called Starmark), which traced shoes since as far in History as known, in Europe to date.

What was remarkable while browsing through the book was that shoes have barely changed since their inception. Sure, today there are computer-generated ergonomic and machine made shoes with material unavailable in the 15th, 16th of even 19th Centuries. But, the shoe in-principle, has remained the same.

To talk of not too far a past, I thought I will mention a little about the shoes worn in the 18th Century, or 1700’s. This was the era when Europe was still united and society was divided into the rich and poor. The rich aristocracy wore every possible type of grandeur, dresses were grand and stiff and the shoes matched the flavour of the day!

Women’s Shoes

18th Century Shoe Painting

In the 18th Century, shoes with heels were very much de-rigeur. Typically, the shoes were covered with cloth, and these were embroidered intricately with flowers, and usually women wore them to match with their outfit (as today!). The cloth was backed by a stiff material giving the shoe its characteristic shape.

The rich also wore shoes embedded with precious stones and wearing a gold shoe with red rubies along with a dress of golden lace and rubies was but natural.

The toes of the shoes were extremely pointed, and the heels were wooden, curving inwards. The heels too were embedded with jewels and sometimes embroidered. These shoes were usually known as Clogs.

!8th Century Italian Shoes

Most times the shoes were covered on all fronts, thereby helping the wearer brave the cold weathers in Europe (it was afterall the Little Ice Age, and the weather was much colder than today). The shoe top was then embellished by buckles which were made as pretty as possible using the materials allowed by the social status of the wearer. A rich person would wear precious stones, diamonds and so on, while a peasant’s would probably be un-embellished.

Since the shoes were meant to accompany the dresses, and made with specially dye-ed cloth, their colours were spectacular and varied. It is a pleasure to look at these shoes. The dresses were made of the height of the person, so when wearing a stiff brocade gown, the hem would be till the ankle of the wearer and the shoe would be clearly visible to another person, making it important to wear matching (and pretty) shoes for important social functions.

Yellow silk shoes with buckles, French, c.1760s

Yellow silk shoes with buckles, French, c.1760s

I do not think they are as comfortable as shoes available in the market today, but one must give credit to the pretty specimens that are available in museums and antique shops.

Mid-1700s Silk Shoe

Towards the end of the century however, with the Napoleonic war and French Revolution as well as the advent of Muslins, and reduction of the number of jewelery and colours worn, as well as the movement of womens dresses from the stiff brocaded and hooped versions to soft, flowing lines, shoes also underwent a change. Heels and stiff shoes seem to have lost their popularity. The trend seen in early 19th Century made its appearance, with flat ballet-like shoes, tied with ribbons around the ankle. These were made of soft silk and muslin and though very pretty, they were delicate and needed replacements pretty soon. The advantage of these shoes however was the fact that they could be repaired at home – much cheaper!

Political Evolution

Satin Slippers

Satin Slippers lined with Linen

Heels seemed to signify social status, as people in the higher social strata did do any manual labour and did not to walk too much and hence wore very high heels to signify the same. The lower strata poorer people did not wear very high heels as most of their work had to be done themselves, and the could not afford carriages for short distances. Considering that most streets were cobbled at the time, wearing even 5-inch of such inwardly curved heels and walking in the elaborate clothes fashionable at the time was definitely a feat! With the French Revolution, heels reduced in size and as they tended towards vanishing, they signified how everyone was of the same social status.

In fact, in the 18th Century, the first Ballet slippers were made, and they had  high heels! The toes were padded so one could dance on the toes. It was only later that flat ballet shoes evolved.

While the shoes with heels made walking difficult because of the high and difficultly balanced heels, the flat shoes (called slippers) that came up after them also made walking difficult on the often muddy and slippery roads, especially in the country and in England. Also, since their soles were thin, the wearer was often subjected to cold and it was definitely not a healthy fashion trend!

Shoes over the Century

Shoes over the 18th Century

Mens Shoes

18th Century Man with Red Heels

Men in the 18th Century were as, if not more flamboyant than the women in their clothing. To go with this, their shoes too were flamboyant. Though men usually wore black shoes with white buckles, it did not stop them from embellishing them with precious stones to match with the rest of their attire. Rubied heels for red-lined coats, emeralds for green lined coats and diamonds if the wearer was decked out in silver lace! The elaborateness of the dress as well as the number of jewels worn showed the social stature of the person and hence was an important indicator.

While the poorer people wore plain shoes, the aristocrats wore extremely high heels making them walk ‘mincingly’ so as not to lose their balance. The

Working class shoes

high heels apart from showing the social stature by making it impossible for the wearer to do physical labour, also balanced the outline of the person. With dresses that balooned around the waist with stiff materials and multiple ‘skirts’, and head covered by towering wigs, it was essential that the human outline be maintained and that was achieved by the high heeled shoes.

However, men indulged in many more activities than women and these primarily comprised of hunting/ riding and the Army. While the heeled shoes were alright for wearing to parties, it was a practical necessity to have shoes which could be worn for riding horses and walking and running. These were the Hessians or Boots, as we know them.

French Military Boots

18th C French Military Boots

The hessians were knee high riding boots made of leather, without heels, and definitely useful while riding a horse as they would help when the leg chafes against the horse. However, in this century of extreme fashion, they were confined only to wearing in the Country, which meant not in society. They were worn when men went for out-door activities, but were a definite no-no in polite circles or when meeting guests at home.

The shine of the hessians were a matter of pride to the wearer, and they were frequently adorned with gold or silver tassles or lined with fur.

Political Evolution

1786 Mens Fashion

With the war, the heels of men’s shoes also went down. However, more drastic to note was the advent of Hessians into every-day acceptable wear. By the early 19th Century Hessians were worn by men in Town (i.e. London or Paris or equivalent cities) though not worn for evening events.

In the late 1700’s, the dressing had reduced in grandeur to signify democracy and the shoes too had sobered down. Boots were still making an entry into society, but calf length boots allowable in town-wear. The shine on the shoes determined the wearer’s status and the style of the top of the shoe  -tassles, fur or embroidery- determined his style quotient!

For this post I have sourced information and pictures from: Wikipedia, Encarta, Doubledeckerbus, Lousiana State Museum, Shoe Blog, Bata Shoe Museum, Canada, Tongue in Cheek, The Costumers Manifesto, Colonial Williamsberg, Humanities etc. Thanks! 🙂


21 Responses to “Shoes in 18th Century Europe (1700’s)”

  1. Rex Says:

    Very well researched post. We can has next one on early to late 20th Century as well?

  2. Dips Says:

    ^__^ thank you! Next will be 19th Century perhaps, before I venture to 20th Century. Afterall 20th C is more similar to what we wore as kids – nothing as exotic!

  3. DK Says:

    Whoa Miss Shoe! “MIss Shoe ” indeed! 🙂
    let me ask in one word – regency era? 😀 well, atleast NOW i know what are Hessians. 😉
    from the post and the pictures, i do get a picture of 17-18 century shoes and that is very pretty. I think todays shoes might be more comfortable , but definitely 18th century shoes very much more dearer to eyes than todays ones.
    do u agree?

  4. Dips Says:

    🙂 yup I agree. They are beautiful shoes.
    Regency Era started from early 19th Century, ie 1811 to be precise. Loosely however, it can be used for a time when fashion started changing, ie post the French Revolution, in late 1700’s. 1795 onwards. That is when the flat shoes started making an entry.
    These shoes are basically before Regency Era, these are from the early Georgian Era in British History. And after 1600’s, ie a time when European Rich were very rich and flamboyant and patronised Art. This is the time Marie Antoinette ruled France Fashion and the political scenario in general was very bad 😉
    Sorry for the mini history lesson 😀
    I might actually dedicate a post to regency era shoes now that you mention it.

    • DK Says:

      It may be as well ! 😉
      As that u mentioned that European rich ver very rich, hence the beauty and fashion! well u did mentioned Hessians, that was regency! 😀
      Also, one thing that needs to be considered, that time, every thing was customised and made to order! Only lately did the industrial revolution and bulk manufacturing spoiled the quality and perfection that a made to order pair embodies! :/

  5. Janaye Says:

    This is an extrodinary post 🙂
    I have a great interest in ‘The age of enlightment’, ‘Rococo’ or more commonly used 18th century era in fashion and people. I think that their clothes back then were adorable and so detailed. Unlike nowdays, they are less decrotive (though some can be extremelly) and had so much effort put into them. They were allot more appreciated too.
    Anyway, I loved your post. I had usually only studied the females, Mainly dresses and the different types and hair and layers and how they changed over years, but now I have taken interest in shoes 🙂
    my favorite from the 18th century aS definitlly the Brocade shoes, in eRly stages as you said.
    So thanks for posting this, it’s really interesting and all the shoes (in your pictures) were divine (:

  6. roley joy Says:

    Its interesting that shoes have not changed very much over the centuries. I was told that when shoes first were marketed there was no left or right in other words they were both the same left and right alike is this so ? Roley Joy

    • Judith Says:


      Yes, that is so. 18th century shoes were made on a straight last so right and left were identical- theorectically that means that you can even the wear by swapping the shoes round. In actuality once you have worn stright last shoes for a while, swapping to wearing them on the opposite feet is irksome.
      For those that like brocade 18th century shoes Sarah Juniper in England makes them in the original manner.

      • Dips Says:

        Thanks Judith. Yes, shoes were identical. In fact, traditional shoes used in some parts of India, called ‘juti’ (literally meaning footwear) still dont have a left or right. However, once they are chosen by the user for each foot, they mould themselves to the feet and thereafter become assigned to them.
        These jutis I am sure are very similar to the 18th Century shoes, made of cloth, and leather, with embroidery on them.
        I will write on post on them some day soon.

    • Dips Says:

      Hi Roley, as you can see above, the shoes were identical. Judith, below, explains best

  7. Cynthia Perry Says:

    I am trying to find information about a pair of shoes I recently came across. The shoes are in Christmas box there is a note saying this was Harry’s first pair of shoes bought in the year 1889. In box it has the shoes and a little book title “Little Stories for Little People.” This book was published by Boston: Lee & Shepard. Please help me search info about this. It also a picture of the Dad and a letter inside the box.

  8. claudette Says:

    So, Moses removing his shoes on Holy ground was a show of humility? Shoes were that special!!

    • Dips Says:

      Shoes are still that special in many parts of the world. You need to remove shoes as a mark of respect in many Asian countries – like India, China, Japan, when you enter someone’s house or when you enter a temple. Thanks for passing by.

  9. kitty Says:

    my dad was alive then and he has never mentioned them

  10. “Shoes in 18th Century Europe (1700’s) Miss Shoes – Shoes you almost Missed” was indeed a wonderful article and also I personally was indeed really joyful to find it. Thanks for your effort,Larue

  11. Edison Says:

    This excellent blog post, “Shoes in 18th Century Europe (1700’s) | Miss Shoes – Shoes you almost Missed” yadkincountyrealestate reveals the fact that you know what you are communicating about! I really totally agree with your post. With thanks -Jill

  12. Auberon Bailey Says:

    I used this for AHEM research…

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