An In-Depth Look at Victorian Footwear
The Victorian era was a modest time in history where what a person wore in public said volumes about who they were and where they stood within society. Modesty reigned supreme, and Victorian women would never leave the house without the proper attire. This included a long, heavy dress made of opulent fabrics that featured a multi-layered skirt and sleeves that always extended to the wrist.
Underneath these lavish garments were shoes that was equally as opulent and oftentimes equally as modest. With that said, people during this era were obsessed with over-the-top design elements. This meant that even the shoes a woman wore were still fancy and featured abundant design elements. Aesthetically pleasing to the eye, they also signaled her place within society in a few important ways.
The Beginnings of the Victorian Boot
The most popular type of footwear worn in the early Victorian era was undoubtedly the boot. Boots were not a new concept during the 19th century. In fact, humans have been wearing boots since as far back as 15,000 BC. As society progressed from the time of the early people, the boot came along for the ride. Functional boots were worn by members of the military during the Roman Empire and throughout most of the middle ages.
The boot as we know it today was popularized by a man named Arthur Wellesley, who was the 1st Duke of Wellington. He preferred tightfitting boots made of shiny leather that extended to the middle of the calf and featured a slight 1” heel. Aptly named “The Wellington,” this type of footwear became a favorite of aristocratic men in the early 19th century in Europe.
Eventually, they spread across the ocean and became a staple in American fashion as well. At the beginning of the 1900s, boots were primarily worn by men. Victorian men wore heavy leather boots that fastened over their trousers. Made of durable materials, they often came embellished with buttons, hooks, or laces that fastened them tightly to the calf.
During the Victorian era, two important strides were taken in regard to footwear. In the past, people were more concerned with the function of a boot rather than its comfort or aesthetic appeal. For this reason, boots that pre-date the 19th century were often interchangeable. The idea that shoes would have a “left” and a “right” didn’t come around until 1818, when a Philadelphia cobbler crafted the first pair of shoes that were designed to comfortably fit each foot.
Advancements in industry also made boots – and footwear in general – more accessible. The sewing machine allowed people to craft quality footwear quicker and easier than ever before. Shoes being easier to make also allowed more time for embellishments and embroidered accents to be added to their exterior. In the early 1800s, footwear went from a utilitarian accessory to a statement-making piece of apparel.
Women’s Shoes in the Victorian Era
Quite unsurprisingly, a woman’s shoes were also an indicator of her femininity and status within society. A popular woman’s magazine from 1870 summed up the type of message that was no doubt repeated to women throughout the Victorian Era –
“The foot is one of the chief points by which a woman’s social position is judged. If the feet are small, well-shod, and prettily used in walking, they add an additional charm to the appearance, and are an indication of high standing and … of gentle birth.”
Because of this, it was important for women to have small, dainty feet. This usually meant women forced their feet into shoes and boots that were up to 2-sizes too small to make their feet appear more delicate – as if being tightly bound into a corset wasn’t uncomfortable enough for women during the 19th century.
Women’s Boots In The Victorian Era
Starting in around 1850, women began wearing boots that resembled the one’s already worn by men in high society. Women’s Victorian boots were slightly more feminine in nature, however, than those worn by their male counterparts.
The boots first worn by women extended to the middle of the calf so that her ankle would stay properly covered underneath her many skirts. These boots often featured laces or a row of buttons to keep secure them to the foot and ankle. Although usually made from durable materials like rubber and leather, boots that were worn purely for fashion were sometimes made of more elegant materials like patent leather or dyed suede.
Fashion boots from the Victorian era exude all of the opulence and decadence that are unique to that time period. Design elements like scalloped trims, intricate embroidery, and lace accents were also not uncommon when it came to elaborately designed Victorian boots. Unlike men’s boots, they also boasted a slight heel that was thinner and more feminine in design.
How lavish a woman’s boots were greatly depended upon how much money her family had and her place within society. While footwear was standard during this time, shoes were still quite a luxury to the modern Victorian. Only very wealthy women owned multiple pairs of boots that featured these eye-catching design elements.
Types of Victorian Boots
When one pictures boots from the Victorian era, they often conjure up an image of the women’s walking boot. These slightly more utilitarian designs were designed to be worn when a woman went for a walk about town. They were made of leather that could be black, brown, or even ivory. At the front you’ll find a lace-up detail that reaches the top of the boot, which extends to anywhere form the top of the ankle to the middle of the calf. Pointed toes and curved heels are other features you’ll often find on these types of boots.
The Victorian Carriage Boot was slightly more lavish and elaborate. Just like Walking Boots, they extended to the middle of the calf, featured a pointed toe, and came complete with a curved heel. These boots, however, came were made of quilted satin. They secured to the foot by buttons, which often contrasted beautifully against the main color of the boot.
As the name suggests, these boots were designed to be worn around the house. Made of a soft fabric like satin, they featured a slight heel and were secured by either laces or a row of buttons. Sometimes, these boots would feature cut-out accents so that a woman’s stockings were visible underneath.
Ladies Riding Boots
Ladies Riding Boots from the Victorian Era aren’t too dissimilar to the riding boots worn by women today. Made of leather, these boots were sleek in design, extended all the way to the knee, and had a smaller heel than usual. Sometimes they would feature decorative accents like cording or a tassel. Incredibly functional, riding boots were a predecessor of the cowboy boot, which would also become popular in the later parts of the 19th century,.
Other Variations on Victorian Women’s Footwear
Boots we’re the only type of shoes that were popular with women in the Victorian era. Just like today, a woman had plenty of options when it came to selecting a shoe that would properly complement her outfit.
Here are other types of shoes that were popular with women during the Victorian era.
High-Heeled Walking Shoes
In the later parts of the Victorian Era, dresses became slightly more A-line and showing off one’s shoes in public was slightly more appropriate. When this change occurred, women’s footwear became even more feminine an elaborate. Instead of boots, fashionable ladies began to wear shoes that closely resemble pumps or high heels that women wear today. These high heeled shoes were made of colorful silks or suedes and came complete with decadent details like bows, flowers, gemstones, embroidered accents, and metal buckles.
The Oriental Shoe
This was another type of fancy shoe that women would often wear in the public realm. Made of leather, they feature straps across the instep fastened at the side by buttons closure. A Louis XV heel and bow accents were popular details on this type of shoe. The cut-out straps also allowed a woman’s beautiful stockings to be visible underneath.
Slippers were another important part of women’s footwear during the Victorian era. Available in several different variations, these shoes were far more casual than a traditional boot or heel. When entertaining in the evening, a woman would wear slightly more relaxed attire than she would wear during the day. Silk evening slippers – which often featured beautiful embellishments – were meant to match or complement their evening gowns.
Bedroom slippers were another popular choice. Just as the name indicates, these were shoes that women wore when relaxing around the house. Made of a comfortable, casual fabric like cloth, they were slightly more understated in design than a shoe that was worn purely to make a fashion statement. With that said, it wasn’t uncommon for a woman’s bedroom slippers to feature feminine accents like bows, buckles, or embroidery.