Shoes in the eighteenth century were an important part of the costume of the aristocracy. A leather sole, linen lining, silk or satin exterior, and brocaded floral patterns made up a woman’s shoe. As the main focal point of the shoe, the straps were either fastened with a jeweled buckle or silk ribbon. A grosgrain ribbon or fluted braid covered all edges and seams. The heel, usually six or seven centimeters high, was positioned towards the front creating an s-curve at the back of the shoe as in Figure 1.
Men’s shoes were simpler, usually covered in black leather with a large silver buckle closure. The buckle changed throughout the eighteenth century becoming larger to the point “that they almost filled the whole upper and often caused injury to the ankles,” (Delapierre, 43). Men also often wore boots that were knee-high or slightly over the knee and made of a similar simple black leather, as depicted in the plate from the Encyclopédie (Figure 2).
Women’s shoes also went through a transformation over the century. Before the reign of Louis XVI, they were pointed and had higher heels. During the reign of Louis XVI the heel became lower and moved in closer towards the instep. Then by the 1780’s jewels, like emeralds and other precious stones, began to appear on the tongue of the shoe. When the Revolution began and the monarchy no longer controlled fashion trends, heels disappeared and toes became pointy again.
Before this however, the s-curve was essential in the way the French believed a person should position themselves, and with the feet as the basis of the way a person stood, shoes were highly influential in this. Both men and women were to stand and walk with their feet turned outwards, much like a modified fourth position ballet pose (Figure 3). With knee breeches, skintight stockings, and one- to three-inch heels, this allowed men to “[display] to all the world…his well-developed, well-turned calves,” as men were to lead with their calves (Annas, 45).
Since the act of walking was highly admired by the French aristocracy, many people spent a large amount of time walking about the park to display themselves and observe others. When walking, the ankle and foot muscles worked extra hard because eighteenth century shoes had little or no arch support and thin wobbly heels. Because of the height of the heel, one would have to walk more on the balls of the feet, making strides shorter. With higher heels than a man’s, women had to shift their weight forward causing them to walk leading with their bosom. The way shoes were made in the eighteenth century had an effect on a person’s whole comportment.
With the shoemaking industry having recently emerged, shoes were still not massively produced. The aristocracy who were the only class likely to have new shoes on a monthly basis, had them custom made. A person would have their measurements made by a shoemaker (Figure 4) and then the shoemaker would be able to create whatever design the costumer/customer wanted. On the other hand, the working class people rarely owned multiple pairs of shoes. While the aristocracy elaborately decorated their shoes, the only decoration on the shoes of the working class would have been a buckle, that is, if they could afford it. Thus, custom-made shoes in the eighteenth century were a novelty worn mainly by the aristocracy.
Paniers, Baleines, Et Jabots. La Mode Au XVIIIe Siecle. Brussels: n.p., 2012. Print.
Annas, Alicia M. “The Elegant Art of Movement,” In An Elegant Art: Fashion & Fantasy in the Eighteenth Century. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Abrams, Publisher: New York, 1983
Delapierre, Madeleine. Dress in France in the Eighteenth Century. Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 1997.
Maeder, Edward. “The Elegant Art of Dress.” In An Elegant Art: Fashion & Fantasy in the Eighteenth Century.
Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, etc., eds. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond D’Alembert. University of Chicago: ARTFL Encyclopédie Project (Spring 2011 Edition), Robert Morrissey (ed), http://encyclopedie.uchicago.edu/.