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I chose this pair of shoes because the slap sole style of shoe is so unique that is it worthy of thorough discussion. Now I’m sure that many of our female listeners will have had the pleasure of attending a special function like a wedding or a graduation outdoors on a lawn. At these functions we’re often dressed up, which for many of us includes a pair of high heeled shoes. And that first step onto the lawn makes us realize that it will be an inelegant afternoon spent with our heels sinking deeper into the grass with each step. The slap sole was designed with the idea of supporting the high heel wearer in outdoor use.
The fashion for slap-soles began in the 1630s when men started to slip their high-heeled riding boots into flat soled mules as a means of keeping their heels from sinking in the mud. Women soon adopted this practice as a fashion statement and before long shoemakers were making very feminine versions.(1)
In 1987 Sotheby’s auction house in London had a rare, spectacular pair of slap-soled shoes from the mid 1600s that were in marvellous condition and were going up for auction. They contacted Mrs. Bata who bid successfully in the sale and bought these important shoes that were thought to be the property of the Viscount Hereford, a descendent of Frances Walsingham, daughter of Queen Elizabeth I’s Spy Master and wife of Robert Devereux the Earl of Essex and favourite of the Queen. It was a very exciting purchase for Mrs. Bata who prepared to have them sent to Toronto to join the rest of her collection. Shortly before they were due to leave, a researcher from the Northampton Shoe Museum declared them too important to leave Britain, and so the export license was stopped and we’ve had to store them in Britain ever since. We currently have them here at the museum, on loan to ourselves for a few years, but when the gallery closes, they’ll have to return to Britain for long-term storage and care.
On close examination you can see that the shoes don’t look the way they would have when they were made and worn, but they are one of a few rare and beautiful examples of the short-lived trend; they feature a very high heel (2) for the time period, but also a long attenuated sole that extends back from the ball of the foot to the heel itself. The sole is hinged so that when the wearer walks, it slaps against the heel, making a distinctive slapping sound with each step. This was an added bonus to the slap sole wearer because it provides everyone in the room with audible proof that the wearer is currently in high heels, which were the latest fashion. This pair, which dates to the last years of the fashion and depicts it at its most extreme, was clearly never intended to be worn out of doors. The pale white kid leather uppers were elaborately decorated with gold braid, and the ribbons have faded, but were once a brilliant pink silk.(3) The slap sole evolved dramatically from its role of keeping men’s riding boot heels from sinking in the mud while out of doors to being a supporting feature of women’s high fashion footwear.
I’ve spent a lot of time envisioning what it would be like to wear a pair of shoes at the peak of their popularity, to catch a style on its way up to the zenith of its fashion moment (instead of when it is so popular that it reaches the affordable market which is when I usually can grab a pair). It must be a wonderful feeling to be wearing the most sought after shoe design of the season to an event where people would know how special your shoes are. In my mind, I hope that the woman that wore these shoes would have felt elevated by them both physically and emotionally, because when they arrived here at the museum in 2006 they had that effect on the staff, even 400 years later.