October 2008

Dancing Through the Halls of History

image of 18th-century shoe
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Dancing Through the Halls of History.
(4.3 minutes, 2.2 MB, MP3 file)
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These shoes were chosen to kick off the Bata Shoe Museum's Shoe of the Month podcasts because their unusual beauty immediately captures the imagination of all who see them. What is even more remarkable is that they are in near perfect condition, which after three centuries defies logic. From the delicately embroidered apple-green uppers to the deep red leather of the heels, they speak of extreme luxury and opulence, the likes of which most of us can't even imagine.

To really understand shoes however, we must look at what they say about the wearer and the culture in which they were worn. While most European women owned only one pair of shoes, which were often made from sturdy brown leather, these Venetian shoes, worn sometime around the year 1700, would have been one of many pairs in a sumptuous closet. They were probably worn by a young woman of considerable wealth whose family or husband could afford high heels, which were the height of current fashion. When a shoemaker combines a narrow, pointed toe and a high heel it creates an optical illusion that the foot is in fact smaller than it is. We know from the story of Cinderella, which was written around this time, that small feet were a symbol of beauty and privilege and that they were the desire of most women.

Let's examine the three most significant features of these shoes individually: the silk, the buckles and the heels. The silk (1) is notable because it is a very rare colour of green that would have been terribly difficult to produce with the natural dyes of the 18th century. Along with the elaborate floral embroidery, it is clear evidence of the pair's precious construction. The colour would have been very conspicuous, and would therefore draw attention to the fashionable woman wearing them. As was common to most women's and men's silk shoes of this time, they are held closed on the foot using a bejewelled buckle that fastens the tabs on either side of the vamp.

Like pieces of fine jewellery, expensive buckles (2) in the 18th century were ornamented with gems, both real and imitation. The 18th-century taste was for diamonds, but high quality rhinestones (which were small pieces of quartz that washed up on the banks of the Rhine river) and glass-paste gems were also widely used and accepted in high society. In fact, diamonds and rhinestones were so prized that as fashions changed and ornamented buckles became passé, these valuable stones were removed from their settings to be reused in jewellery, and the buckles were melted down for their precious metals.

The heels (3) are made from bevel-carved wood covered in deep red Moroccan leather. You may have noticed that the placement of the heel is quite close to the instep of the foot, rather than at the heel of the foot where you'd expect to see it. This reflects the difficulty shoemakers had in meeting the persistent demand for excessive height. Prior to the creation of the reinforced shank in the later part of the 18th century, heels that were set back too far from the middle of the shoe caused the instep to collapse. The answer to the problem was to place the heel almost at the mid-point under the foot; it was not, however, the best solution for the wearer's comfort and walking ability.

Many of today's shoe designers look to historic examples for inspiration and based on this pair, it is easy to see why. While you might not see a hand-embroidered silk shoe with hand-carved heels on the shelves of your favourite shoe store, you will absolutely see the enduring combination of the pointed toe and high heel along with beautiful luxurious fabrics and sparkling embellishments.

Some people might look at these shoes and see a historical treasure; others might see them as simply an object of incredible beauty, but no one looks at them and does not imagine themselves or an elegant woman wearing them to walk or dance her way through the halls of history.


image of 18th-century shoe - closeup of silk

(1) The silk

image of 18th-century shoe - closeup of buckle

(2) The buckle

image of 18th-century shoe - closeup of heel

(3) The heel

image of 18th-century shoe - closeup of buckle

(4) Side view of the buckle, showing stitching