Northampton Borough Council
Northampton Borough Council

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Early Shoes


Bronze Age shoe

The simplest way to protect feet was to grab what was handy - bark, large leaves and grass - and tie them under the foot with vines. In hot countries this developed into the sandal made from woven palms, grass or plant fibres and attached to the foot with toe loops. Examples of early sandals have been found in Japan, Polynesia and America.

 Few early shoes have survived. Fragments of Bronze Age footwear have been found in excavations but not enough to determine styles. But from the Roman times onwards many shoes have survived suggesting that there were many more shoe styles than one would expect.


Roman shoe

Romans arrived in Britain wearing the military sandal, called the caliga, which exposed the toes, had a lattice - patterned upper, front lacing and a heavily nailed sole. Other styles were the calceus and the gallica, both with a closed toe - a style more suited to the British weather.

After the Romans left, Britain began producing its own styles, usually a closed toe leather shoe with an oval or round toe shape. The ankle shoe was popular in the 9th Century.


Medieval footwear

Footwear styles continued to change during the Medieval age. The length of one's toe was an indication of status. The King and his court had shoes with the largest toes. This style wasn't worn by women. The ankle shoe remained popular, it was usually side laced with three pairs of holes.

The pointed toe disappeared at the end of the Middle Ages and was replaced by round and square toe shapes. At first a sensible size, toes became larger and larger. During the reign of Henry VIII soles reaching 6½ inches wide were common and known as foot bags.


Tudor shoes

After 1500, a blunt pointed toe returned, followed by a round toe in the 1590s. It's about this time that heels emerge.

By the end of Elizabeth I's reign heels grow to 2-3 inches, all footwear is made straights and sides are opened up.

During the reign of Charles I, flamboyant knee boots were popular.


Chinese shoe

In the 17th Century, men wore shoes and mules with a square toe, often blocked and domed. Women decided that a pointed toe was more feminine. An important innovation in 1660 was the buckle to fasten a shoe. Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary of 22nd January 1660, "This day I began to put on buckles to my shoes".

At first popular with men, women eventually wore them too, replacing ribbon latchets with buckle latchets


Patterned shoe

In the 18th Century, women's shoes reflected the elaborate patterns of their dresses. Men's shoes became quite plain made of black leather with pointed toes and low heels.

Towards the end of the 18th Century and beginning of the 19th Century women's shoes became lower and lower cut, heels became lower until they disappeared altogether and the pointed toe is replaced by first narrow oval toes and then square toes. Shoes became so dainty made from satin and silks that ribbon ties are added to keep the shoe on the foot.


Silk shoe

The 19th Century was characterised by the predominance of boots both for men and women. Popular styles were the Blucher boot, cloth boots, the elastic sided boot, the button boot, and the Balmoral boot.

Apart from boots, women wore court shoe style shoes in a variety of different materials, from satin and silk to reptile and drawn leathers. Men had a choice between the Oxford shoe, with front lacing and a closed tab and the Derby shoe, with front lacing and an open toe.


Platform shoe

The 20th Century saw a variety of shoe styles and the rise of the shoe designer.

From 1920s bar shoes to 1930s co-respondent two-colour shoes to 1940s utility styles to 1950s brothel creepers to 1960s winklepickers and stiletto heels to 1970s platform soles, shoe designers were prominent throughout the 20th Century.