Shoe Styles Revived in the 1700-1800s

Shoe styles did not exist when the first shoes appeared as early man wore nothing more than a sole fastened to the foot with straps. Over time, shoe became more substantial and eventually shoes turned into a fashion statement for the foot. Once shoe styles emerged, similar to other fashions, styles faded and revived with the era, and the modern shoes of the 1700 and 1800s were often based on fashions that reached back as far as the 1400, 1500, or 1600s. These shoe styles used shapes and styles popular from those early times to create new modern styles.

Shoe Worn by Catherine de Medici, Public Domain

Shoe worn by Catherine de Medici.  Public domain.

When it came to the 1700s, shoe styles often had curved heels and square toes. By the mid-1700s, high, curved heels and pointed toes were in fashion. The Flemish, however, wore a style altogether different from most Europeans. Their shoes, shown below, were considered unusual, although the “heel and back are not unlike in shape the shoe worn during the Regency in France.”[2] However, the curved toe was so different from other European styles and it was noted:

“[T]he peculiar front-piece makes us think that this shoe could never have been very popular for every-day wear.”[3]

Indeed, it must have been an uncomfortable shoe as the toe portion hardly appears roomy enough for a normal person’s toes. If it was uncomfortable with the Flemish it did not stop them from embracing the fashion.

Shoes Worn By the Flemish in the 1700s, Public Domain

Shoes worn by the Flemish in the 1700s. Public domain.

Mules go back to Ancient Rome but did not become popular until the 16th century. At that time mules were worn in bedrooms and boudoirs, rather than out in public. They were also worn at salons and favored by Louis XV’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour. Fashion plates shown mules worn near the end of the 1790s, but they were generally not seen because of the length of a woman’s skirts. They then fell out of fashion in the early 1800s but were revived in popularity by the mid-1800s.

Eighteenth-century embroidered mules. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Shoe styles of the 1700s also included a workday shoe that could be worn every day. According to historian Kimberly S. Alexander, in the American colonies one of the most popular of these workday shoes that was a wardrobe staple and ubiquitous was the calamanco,”a worsted wool finished with a glazed surface.”[4] The shoe was extremely popular in the colonies between the 1730s and 1780s partly because they affordable, warmer than silk shoes, and could survive in poor weather. They were also “fancied by women from both the high and low ends of society,”[5] and even Martha Washington owned a pair.

Unfortunately, not many of these shoes survived. That is because they were often so well-worn, they were thrown into the privy, which was an early way that people disposed of their trash. Additionally, whereas expensive shoes were prized and passed down from generation to generation the calamanco shoes were considered utilitarian and because they were worn every day they were often worn out and therefore thrown away.

By the time of the American Revolution calamanco shoes began to function as a political statement. Colonists who wore calamancos produced in Britain could be shamed for wearing them because

“As early as the 1750s … voices rose in protest against the corrupting aspects of luxury imports, calling on colonial consumers to purchase shoes made by local cordwainers in Lynn or Newport. … The purchase of calamanco shoes, because of the significant output from Lynn … in some small way came to represent colonial economic independence.”[6]

Red calamanco wedding shoe circa 1765 for the wedding of Mary Flint to Eleazer Spofford. The buckles are not original to the shoes. Courtesy of Five College and Historic Deerfield Museum Consortium, Object Number HD 2004.26.

As to the heel styles in the late 1700s Alexander reports that these styles were “constantly changing” and “a new, easily identifiable style emerged as low-heeled delicate, neoclassical French slippers and shoes pervaded American shores.”[7] In addition, Alexander notes of the calamanco shoes in the 1750s:

“They were made with long straps, for the ladies, like the gentlemen, wore buckles and the rands were commonly white.”[8]

It was reported that black shoes were sometimes seen in the court of Louis XIV and during the French Revolution the shoe of the period was cited as being “rough, heavy and black.” Fishwives, who were market women of Paris and had special relations with the French Monarchy and were long standing royalists, were the first to adopt these shoes. Like the calamanco shoes in the American colonies black shoes became a political statement because during the Reign of Terror if you were caught wearing a pair of colored shoes it meant death to you.

After the French Revolution, democracy and fashion began to embrace neoclassical ideals. Feminine fashions also resembled those from Greek and Roman times with women wearing sleeveless, gauzy and sheer white robes. Shoes also lost their heels for a time and women, like Madame Récamier, wore no shoes at all or embraced the laced sandals popular from ancient times.

shoe styles

Portrait of Madame Récamier with bare feet in neoclassical fashion by artist Jacques-Louis David. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Up to the 1840s shoes were produced by hand. That changed with the invention of the sewing machine in 1846, which was followed by more effective shoe-making machines by the 1860s and manufacturing breakthroughs using rubber by 1875. Thus, by the 1880s and 1890s shoe styles had changed with white shoes becoming popular in the 1890s, as well as patent leather shoes.

Shoemaker at work. Author’s collection.

Still shoe styles from earlier times tended to gain popularity. One revived fashion was to ornament shoes with beads, buckles, and small rosettes garnishing the footwear “with a view to making the shoes of the ‘summer girl’ more comely.”[9] One modern shoe in 1895 was the Razor Toe. This was not a new style as this shoe happened to have first been worn in the 1400s. The 1895 version was slightly different from its earlier counterparts. The new nineteenth-century style was about two inches longer in the toe and had perforations or slashes on either side of the upper portion. This shoe was made from a light russet leather with the beak-shaped toe being made from gilded copper. The heel was covered in red leather and similar in style to the Flemish heel worn in the 1700s.

Around 1610 elaborate rosettes were added to shoes and worn by both men and women. The Razor toe shoe shown below has a large rosette of silver lace added at the front for “pomp and ceremony.” Because this shoe style was so readily accepted by women in 1895, one person claimed it was “a feminine tribute to its attractiveness.”[10]

Razor Toe Shoe, Public Domain

Razor toe shoe. Public domain.

Duck-bill shoes were first worn in the late 1400s. Early styles were designed from brocade, silk, or velvet. They were also often plumped, padded, and embroidered and had perforations or slashes so that colored hose, which was popular at that time, could be readily seen despite wearing footwear. In the 1500s, Louis XIII’s imperious and extremely stubborn mother, Marie de Medici, liked the Duck-bills so much she replaced all her Razor toe shoes with Duck-bills. The style below, although an 1895 style, shows the type of Duck-bill toe shoes styles that she wore in the 1500s. The 1895 version had perforations on either side surrounded by decorative holes, and it was embellished with an elaborate decoration on the vamp and toe.

Duck-bill Shoe, Public Domain

Duck-bill shoe. Public domain.

The shoe below was a new shoe styles popular in 1884. It also has the ever-popular perforations that allowed stocking wearers to show them when wearing the shoe. In comparison to the 1895 fashions, this shoe had “delicate workmanship” and an ordinary round toe. The rounded toe became popular in the 1530s and the low heel appeared around 1610, both of which were back in fashion in the late 1800s and are demonstrated in this 1884 style. Additionally, between 1450 and 1500, shoes began to conform to a person’s foot, as does this modern decorative shoe of the 1800s.


Decorative Shoe of 1884, Public Domain

Decorative shoe of 1884. Public domain.

Tokio was an anglicized version of Tokyo and the Tokio toe shoe was another of the popular shoe styles worn in the 1500s but reintroduced in 1895. The toe of this shoe was shorter than the Razor toe but just as pointed. Another difference was the slight curve at the end. The modern Tokio toe shoe also had an overabundance of looped perforations (and went from the vamp to the quarter) with four on either side. As shown these perforations were introduced to show the naked foot or colorful hose. The heel height was lower in earlier times but higher than the than the heel of the 1884 decorative shoe shown above.

Tokio Toe Shoe, Public Domain

Tokio toe shoe. Public domain.

Another interesting note is that prior to Prince Albert’s death in 1861, colored shoes were all the rage but after his death, black shoes become more common. Black shoes had supposedly been introduced by Puritans who objected to colored shoes because of their “worldliness.” Black shoes became even more popular during the 1880s and 1890s, and, so, the colored versions of the Razor toe, Duck-bill toe, and Tokio toe were the exception rather than the rule.

Box toe shoe styles were also popular in the late 1800s. However, there were also a good deal of complaints regarding this style. That was partly because box toed shoes were supposed to maintain their shape and not hurt the foot. Yet, that was not always the case, which caused the Shoe and Leather Journal to admonish shoes manufacturers in the following manner:

“A common fault is the turning down of the edge of the box upon the toes, causing inconvenience and abrasions upon the foot. This is confined to the leather box, and is caused by the thin edge curling. This evil, as with curling counters, may be obviated with a little care in the preparation and adjustment of the box. The edge of the latter must not be shaved too thin and should be of uniform thickness across. Canvas boxes give much better satisfaction along this line than the leather article, although there is considerable prejudice against their use.”[11]

Another of the shoe styles (and stockings) that was modish in 1898 was promoted by Frenchmen. Moreover, it was a colorful fashion and used elements from earlier times as indicated:

“Paris shoemakers are filling orders for yellow patent leather outdoor shoes, and their patrons are to wear pretty green slippers with silk stocking to match, as well as a slipper having gilt horsehair over a color let in from top to instep and flanked with black patent leather besides a Louis XV gilt heel. Black Chantilly inset in silk is the stocking to wear with such a slipper.”[12]


  • [1] Shoe and Leather Report, Vol. 59, 1895, Boston, p. 1265.
  • [2] Goater, Walter H., A Short Treatise on Boots and Shoes, Ancient and Modern, 1884, New York, p. 22.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Alexander, Kimberly S., Treasures Afoot, 2018, Baltimore, p. 109.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 112.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 87.
  • [8] Ibid., p. 132.
  • [9] Shoe and Leather Report, p. 1265.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Shoe and Leather Journal, 1898, Toronto, p. 17.
  • [12] Ibid., p. 241.

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