The History of Shoes

Shoes, heels, slippers; all such wonderful and tantilising treasures for your toes… !

I am very excited to inform you that this is not my typical footwear article (i.e. not your typical brands, designers, innovations, etc.). Although I will need to be a little more specific for this to hold true: I’ve spent the past few weeks researching the origins of our fascination with footwear; more recently resulting in having to face the challenge of condensing all my newly-found knowledge into just a few short paragraphs for you!

Fortunately for you this means it’s also slightly longer than usual - so go get your cup of tea at the ready and put those feet up for a few minutes! Here you go….

Last month I took a visit to Northampton Museum to access some of the globes biggest footwear archives and talk to their curator, Rebecca Shawcross, to delve into the traditions behind the fashion we so admire. We spoke about an array of topics covering the most popular historical artefacts on display to the archives most interesting recent revelations; and of course we had a good old gossip about the adoring customers who step in to see these wonderful miniature works of art!


When you step foot in to the archive collections you truly feel like you’re stepping back in time: A curator delicately cleans the dust off the shoes – shoe by shoe from upper to sock, lining and laces – whilst wearing protective gloves to keep them in pristine condition, or as close to that which they once were. Shoes are sorted from the earliest on filethrough to the latest emerging designers’ collection. It has a smiliar feeling to that which you get when walking in to a antique book store on St. Martin’s Lane or into the basement of John Lobb Bootmakers. When you turn each corner you will be sure to find some kind of Black swan: from hand-crafted clowns shoes and bespoke footwear made crafted for individual ailments, through to Chinese foot binding slippers (below, left.



I’d love to walk you around everything i’ve learnt, but for now i’ll highlight a select few of my discoveries:

These shoes (above, right) are incredibly detailed; from the finest of leathers and hand crafting, through to the maker’s logo embroidered in to the inside of the sole - hidden in a place you could only ever notice should you take your shoes to the cobblers; a real surprise for the wearer and cobbler alike; and an excellent example of building loyalty beyond reason to the manufacturer’s brand!

Keeping on the theme of hidden surprises, curator Rebecca Shawcross’s fascination of the moment is that of concealed shoes. From roughly the 1500-1900’s, research suggests that as a ritual to ward off evil spirits shoe owners would hide their leather shoes in ‘walled-in’ places such as fireplaces, chimneys, and walls or ceilings:

“Many questions arise from this new discovery, such as: why, in the vast majority of cases were only singles hidden? The obvious logic would be that if a pair of shoes was available to conceal then a pair would be concealed to increase their ‘power’ but why was the decision made to frequently only conceal one of a pair?…. Is there a bias between which shoe was picked…. the left or right? There doesn’t seem to be a particular pattern of only lefts over rights and vice versa. So you conceal one shoe and the big question is what happens to the other shoe?” (Shawcross, R., 2013)

Notice the hidden shoe below?


Finally, my favourite discovery was most definitely Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy tale ballet slippers from the film ‘The Red Shoes’. Last year I saw the film as part of the interactive theatrical performance created by Secret Cinema – so it was lovely to see the famous shoes themselves. Not only do they hold simple beauty in their style: elegant red silk pointes with long silk ribbons to wrap around your ankle; but the beauty is amplified by the drama within the film – seeing the shoes connect with the wearer. Even before the film, ballet holds a part of most girls hearts’ for it’s classic elegance and whimsical beauty. For me, seeing these ballet slippers may be similar to those of you who are dazzled by The Wizard of Oz’s Red Slippers or the iconic Vivienne Westwood’s we all know so well.



For those of you with an appreciation for a true artisan craft, British heritage, or simple footwear fascination; I would strongly recommend a trip to Northampton – the home of British footwear manufacture, Northampton Museum and Footwear collection.

By Melanie Copus, Fashion Consultant,