Although much of Victorian footwear is elegant and beautiful, the last thing the average Victorian woman would have said was that her shoes were comfortable. The same attitude that fashioned restrictive corsets and cumbersome clothes also extended to shoes.
The Three Styles of Victorian Footwear
For women, there were really just three styles of shoes: boots, clogs and dress slippers. The reason for the lack of variety is simple - shoes were not meant to be seen. Rather, they were to stay hidden under a dress. If a glimpse of them were seen during an exuberant dance, well, at least they reflected the woman wearing them. Shoes were designed to look small, pretty and unobtrusive, and this was what women were expected to be as well.
Boots were made of a hard leather that could take a very long time to break in. Even working-class women, who had to do a lot more walking and standing, could not get comfortable boots, although they were at least solid. They were only worn when one was going out in the daytime. As is known from the popular reproduction and costume boots available, they either laced up the sides or front. But unlike a modern boot, there was no zipper. A woman, or her maid, had to bend over and take the time to lace up the boots herself.
The dress slipper is traditionally what we think of when we imagine Victorian footwear. Made of silk, satin or kid, with a curving low heel (heels were added to dress shoes around 1860) and considerable embellishment on the top, including lace and embroidery, they were elegant items that matched a woman's dress, even though they were not meant to be seen. The more wealthy a woman was, the more elaborate her shoes. They could come in an array of colors and decorations.
Bows, tassels, feathers and beads were all seen on the shoes. They were moderately more comfortable than the daytime boots, but not by much. Shoes and boots were both worn as short and tight as possible. This was not just fashionable, it fit part of the strict moral standard. The idea was to discourage physical activity, even excessive walking. A woman of a certain class was not mean to be active. She was to stay home, mostly sit and behave herself.
The clogs of the Victorian era bear some similarity to those seen today, but traditional clogs are very hard to find. They were wooden and popular for dancing in the north of England. Even the women danced and eventually, clog dancing was seen on stage.
Reproduction Shoes and Boots
While it's possible to come across vintage Victorian footwear - usually boots, as they would be solid enough to last - it's almost never possible to wear them. They are very narrow and often short and simply not meant for modern feet. However, reproduction shoes and boots made either for stage, reenactment or just for fun, are easily found and can actually be worn. Boots in particular are often touted for their Victorian style, because the line is so attractive. As much as the Victorians shrank from anything that could be labeled "sexy," the curvy heel of the women's boots has a decided appeal, as does the lacing.
If you are looking for an exact reproduction, some options include:
- My Vintage Sole
- Ladies Emporium: Part of Gentleman's Emporium, specializing in handcrafted reproduction wear for men and women, also suitable for steampunk.
- Amazon Dry Goods: No, not that Amazon. Amazingly, you still have to order actual catalogs, but they do offer a nice selection of shoes and at least ordering from a paper catalog adds a touch of authenticity.