January 2009

How Victorian Women Protected Their Modesty

image of 1940s platform shoes
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How Victorian Women Protected Their Modesty
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This lovely quartet of ankle skimming boots is a small sample of the many Adelaide boots that we have in our storage vaults at the Bata Shoe Museum. I’ve really stepped outside of the mandate of the (solo) shoe-of-the-month since this is in fact four shoes but I think as we explore them more deeply, you’ll forgive me.

The Adelaide boot is named for Adelaide, Queen Consort of King William IV (1830-1837) and it was introduced in Britain in the 1830s. They were very popular in Britain and caught on throughout Europe and North America by the late 1840s but fell from fashion when the front-lacing boot was introduced in the late 1850s. In the United States they were more commonly known as “gaiter boots”.

The Adelaide was as much a pragmatic style as it was a straight fashion style because it covered a woman’s ankle rather than just her foot - a necessity that came about in the 1850s when crinolines replaced the layered petticoats necessary to fill out the voluminous skirts of the time. These wire-frame hoop skirts were a huge relief to women because they were much lighter and cooler than the heavy and cumbersome layered petticoats, however they were also socially dangerous because they tended to tip and sway with movement which exposed the ankle. There is a clever passage lauding the Adelaide style in a small book entitled Every Lady Her Own Shoemaker published in the 1850s that states, “If the wind blows one’s skirts away from the feet, one’s ankles are not so much exposed”. Now when we consider our contemporary shoe fashions that favour ultra high-heels and exposed toes it might be hard to understand why showing an ankle would ever be an issue, but for the buttoned up Victorians, a woman’s exposed ankle could have sent men swooning with pleasure.

These new volatile skirts showed off a woman’s shoes and allowed them to embrace colourful footwear again, which had been abandoned for simple black and white slippers earlier in the century because long hemlines covered shoes and obviated the need for colourful designs. Adelaides that were made to be worn indoors were made from delicate silk, whereas those to be worn outdoors were made from sturdier kid leather, and curiously enough there was an in between style like the rust coloured one in the photograph that was made from silk but featured protective leather trim at the toe and heel (the most often damaged spots on footwear).

Now let’s get back to the Adelaide’s from our collection. The defining features of an Adelaide boot include; a flat, straight sole (meaning no left or right specialization) with no heel (or at least a very, very short one), side lacing closure, and a long narrow toe. The midnight-blue and the mouse-gray silk Adelaides in the photo are very typical of the style while the quilted green version with its short heel and the rust-orange version with its toe and heel caps both exhibit a more flamboyant style. The selection that we’re looking at here truly embraces the new aniline (synthetic) dyes that were available to textile manufacturers.

The Adelaide boot looks simple and in some ways even comfortable when compared to today’s stilettos, platforms, sandals and boots, but in fact they were rather torturous for women’s feet. The unique combination of the narrow toes, intricate side lacing and flat soles that did not differentiate between right and left resulted in fallen arches, pinched feet, toes folded over one another, bunions and corns. Not to mention the constant feeling of having one’s feet imprisoned all day long because women were not apt to lace and unlace their boots more often than they had to.

Far be it from me to state empirically that we’ll never see Adelaide boots in Western women’s fashion again, but I can comfortably say that we’re not likely to see the Puritanical ideals of Victorian times again, which means that hiding our ankles in tight-lacing, delicate silk boots to protect our modesty from the motions of our petticoats will not be a major issue that contemporary women must face.