Boots and shoes are one some of the most popular selling items on items on ebay, and recent surveys have indicated that Miss Average Great Britain today may own from twenty five to seventy five pairs of boots and shoes.
In 2000 Hampshire Museums toured an exhibition, entitle ‘The shoe show’, which was extremely popular. It showed a selection of boots and shoes from the collection, dating back to the 18th century, arranged in various ways – both chronologically, and with a study of different types and designs, including occupational, and sporting. Platforms from three decades- the 1930s, 1970s and 1990s, all featured, as did stilettos from the 1770s to the 1990s.
How do we choose items to represent past and present shoe trends? What makes a pair of boots or shoes museum-worthy?
We look to collect a range of representative dates and types, to shoe a variety of styles and materials, for men, women and children, worn at work, at leisure, and at school, and to collect items that will complement displays of historic dress and textiles.
There are large collections of shoes at Northampton and Street (Somerset) shoe museums, and we in no way seek to rival them. Most shoes in Hampshire’s collections are donations. Many are well worn, and tell the story of ordinary footwear as functional and utilitarian. Others are virtually unworn, especially those associated with special occasions such as weddings, and those with particularly high heels. One pair of stilettos from the 1950s came into the collection complete with a warning from the manufacturer that they could not be held responsible should the heel break. This is interesting in the light of a recent victory in 2008 for a purchaser of a pair of heeled shoes, who has claimed damages for injuries sustained through the wearing of a heel which snapped.
Collecting a representative selection of all kinds of footwear for the collections is tricky. Less typical examples of everyday shoes might survive because they were perhaps uncomfortable and not worn so often but consigned to the back of the wardrobe. Our favourite and also work-wear ones tend to get worn out and thrown away. Sometimes it is difficult to accept very shoddy shoes, because they are not as visually attractive, but in some ways it is important to do so for the purposes of future study.
Some shoes can be viewed as decorative art, because of their interesting or lavish choice of materials. Delicate silk and coloured kid leather shoes of the late Georgian and Regency period survive in quantity – because they were less often worn, more carefully kept, and admired as ‘objets d’art’ over the years, not least for their often tiny sizes. Pairs from the Art Deco period are covered in metal thread brocade, or sport diamante heels. We have gilt leather 1930s platform shoes made by Bata, of Czechoslovakia, and some stunning mid 20th century shoes sold through high class department stores such as Saks 5th Avenue, New York, and Bon Marche Paris; together with highly regarded shoe manufacturers such as Melnotte of Paris, Bally of Switzerland and Ferragamo of Florence, Italy. We also have a number of pairs by Rayne, Court shoemakers of London.
The designer shoe is a 20th century concept, and tends to be centred on the fashion capitals of the world. Museums would require a large budget to acquire such examples consistently, or need to seek a well-heeled (pun intended) benefactor to present their personal wardrobe of amazing shoes!
We are keen to acquire shoes made locally by individual shoemakers, and larger scale manufacturers in the south of England. Two names stand out for Hampshire in the 1850-1980 period: Burberry and Milward, both being companies which started on Winchester Street in Basingstoke in 1856 and 1857 respectively. Sadly we have few early examples of either company’s output- presumably because they were in serviceable black and brown leathers, well worn, much polished, and ultimately, after several visits to the cobblers, regretfully dispatched. For the mid 19th century we have nice examples from Good of Lymington and Butt of Winchester.
Post Office trade directories indicate that there were 1,400 boot and shoemakers in Hampshire in 1867, with just four wholesale warehouses. By 1890 the number of individual boot and shoemakers listed has reduced to around 1,000, with many more wholesalers introducing mass-produced wares into the county in the later 19th century, not least from factories in the Northampton area. Where earlier quality shoes were made-to- measure, and individual lasts made for their wealthier clients, standard sizing was introduced in the later 19th century so that shoes could be bought ready-made. However we do have numbers of lasts dating through to the mid 20th century in style, showing that bespoke footwear did continue for finer footwear, especially riding boots.
The oldest female shoes made of textile date back nearly 300 years, to c1725. They are of maroon cut velvet, with green silk damask heels. We have a Spitalfields silk brocade pair of the 1730s with their own matching clogs, to protect the feet from the mud and wet when outdoors. Another pair is of canvas-work embroidered in a delightful strawberry design in green, red and black silks. We have a rare pair of sturdy leather shoes from c1740. The first stiletto in the collection dates to c.1779 – it is one of a pair, and sadly we do not know what befell the other one – or who fell from it?!
There are also ‘archaeological’ shoes – shoes excavated, either found under floor boards or in ditches on farms and pathways. These early, leather shoes are very much accidents of survival, and cannot give a full picture of footwear from a given period, but add to the wider body of knowledge that is being gathered, through projects such as that led by the Textile Conservation Centre called ‘Hidden House History’ where shoes (and other artefacts) found bricked up inside chimneys and thought to have been placed there to bring good luck to the owners when their house was built, were recorded on a national database [see www.concealedgarments.org] and provided the subject of a touring exhibition which Hampshire hosted in 2005-06.
19th century shoes include ballet type pumps popular in the 1820s and 1830s, and Victorian kid leather and cotton sateen bootees with elasticated sides. There are homemade Berlin wool-work slippers for the bedroom, including a pair embroidered with spaniels, and several unmade pairs, one with elaborate beadwork in a design of fishes. There are soft leather Edwardian travelling slippers, and some homemade fabric slippers from the Second World War.
Wartime production of Utility shoes was carried out to a very high standard, and many impoverished students of the 1970s were to be found wearing previously unworn surplus stock or indeed second-hand examples, which served them right through college. The CC41 mark appeared stamped on the interior lining, or imprinted onto the base, and what is perhaps surprising is the range of designs and colours, with wedges and heels, not only in browns, and blacks but including a two tone pair in green and tan.
We have the trend-setting winkle-pickers, and classic styles such as brogues and court shoes. A range of sporting footwear features: skiing, hiking, and skating boots, tennis and cricket shoes, and two pairs of rubber bathing shoes.
We all have special stories about our own footwear. Mine are about loss and ruin: the pair of sparkling white confirmation shoes, made muddy in the rain as I tripped into church for the ceremony; a new stiletto boot caught and scraped in pavement grating; the stylish Gabor shoe lost out of the back of the car boot (ha!) on holiday.
One lady took great delight in giving a pair of her school shoes to the collection. Her name? Mrs Deadman! ‘Deadman’s shoes’…