Mar 272012

Writing on 22nd January 1660 the diarist Samuel Pepys recorded
“This day I began to put buckles on my shoes”. He was absolutely the height of fashion, and the Restoration of the monarchy was accompanied by the rapid decline of the ubiquitous boot, and the revival of the shoe. This in turn meant the stocking suddenly got a look-in, and the fashion for elaborately embroidered stockings came in. Which in turn led to Francis Hall, my five times great grandfather, becoming a hosier’s apprentice in 1720.
The actual manufacture of the shoe would have been carried out by a member of the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers. It got its name from the Spanish city of Cordoba, from where the very best leather (goatskin) came from.

Mind you, ladies of refinement  would have been far more likely to wear silk shoes indoors, saving leather for trips outside. Here are a pair shown courtesy of the V & A Museum, dating from around 1730:The curved heel and pointing-up toes are typical of the period.

I love this pair of silk shoes (early 18th Century) shown courtesy of the Bata Museum:



The 18th-century taste was for diamond encrusted buckles, but high quality rhinestones (which were small pieces of quartz that washed up on the banks of the River Rhine) were also used along with paste (glass). So highly prized were the rhinestones and diamonds that as fashions changed, and tastes altered, the ‘stones’ were prised out and re-used while the setting would be melted down.
The heel is interesting: made of wood they would have clattered daintily on wooden floors! The shoe makers had great difficulty with the actual position of the heels – put at the back of the shoe the pressure on the sole would cause it to break or give way and therefore it was positioned much closer to the instep. The demand for more vertiginous heels meant that the wearer must have found the shoes somewhat uncomfortable. I confess I have never tried teetering around in high heels  supporting my instep, and I am not about to try!

Mind you, it takes all sorts: this one  on the left is apparently a fetishist shoe from the 1780s:                 

I think I still prefer the contemporary look of the modern one on the right! Killer heels and peep toes… and laces. But there’s the point: laces swept across the board in around 1790, driving the buckle into obscurity. O.K. they are still worn by High Court judges  on Law Sunday processions, but hey, they still wear full wigs so they don’t really count as mainstream fashion arbiters!

The actual date when shoe laces are first recorded was a very specific one: 27 March 1790. The buckle-making industry, particularly centred in Wolverhampton, Birmingham and Walsall, collapsed almost overnight. In vain the buckle-makers went to see the Prince of Wales at Carlton House. “The object of their audience was to present a petition, setting forth the distressed situation of thousands of individuals in different branches of the buckle manufacture in consequence of the the fashion then prevailing of wearing strings. His royal highness received the petitioners very graciously and, as proof of his sympathy, not only resolved to wear buckles himself but to order that his household should do the same.”

A fat lot of good that did, the same source recording that “by 1812, the whole generation of fashions, in the buckle line,  was extinct: a buckle was not to be found on a female foot, nor upon any foot except that of old age”.

Laces were the order of the day (not bright colours like these – but something altogether more tasteful…). And the aglet? Well, as any quiz follower will know (because it seems to have become the archetypal quiz question) the little thingy at the end of the lace, the bit which stops it fraying and enables the lace to be threaded through the eyelet, is known as an aglet (sometimes aiglet). Back in 1790 it would have been made with tightly bound thread encasing the end of the lace. Later the end was crimped in metal or, more recently, heat bonded with plastic..

Wikipedia kindly shows three sorts: copper, plastic and brass.

And finally: some more facts for Quiz Night: until as recently as 1850 the majority of shoes were made so as to be interchangeable (there were generally no ‘left’ and ‘right’ shoes because they were usually made on identical lasts). And the rubber heel? It was patented on January 24, 1899 by Irish-American Humphrey O’Sullivan.  Meanwhile, happy birthday to the modern shoelace, 222 years old today!

  4 Responses to “Shoes, buckles and aglets. Happy birthday to the shoe-lace!”


    Brilliant post! *applause* Am reading about socks and stockings right now, so this is right up my street. Great pictures. And I did not know that about the rubber heel connection with Ireland! Off to explore that now too.


    textilehistorIE, there’s a great post on 2 Nerdy History girls about stockings and how vulgar it was for a girl to wear any with big and especially colourful clocks.
    Great post! I hate high heels but as a woman I always like looking at shoes…


    Fabulous post! I love those diamond encrusted shoe buckles and own a couple of pair of 18thC paste buckles, and I agree with Sarah, I hate high heels. I also find it interesting that in the 18thCentury there was no right or left shoe, either shoe could be worn, so with the heel placement and straight shape, shoes would not have been at all comfortable! I wonder when shoes began to be made for right and left feet?


      My recollection is that shoe lasts became distinctively either right or left in the mid 19th century but will have to do some more research! That pains me, since I have not the slightest interest in those faddish Victorians….!

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