Throughout the century the British female beau monde looked to France, and to a lesser extent Italy, for the latest in fashion trends. In footwear this saw a continuation of the elegant slender ‘Pompadour’ heel, the highest and narrowest of which had to be reinforced with metal spikes. In shape, shoes evolved blunted toes with a slight upwards curl creating a softer and less constructed look. Women’s shoes in this period were often referred to as slippers because of the low cut of the vamp and lower positioning of the latchet fastenings. These features helped to expose more of the wearer’s ankle, a potentially seductive feature which was complemented by the fashion for slightly shorter gowns.
Whilst sumptuous fabrics remained popular, kid leather started to be used in this period (1760-1770) for the shoes of the elite. Leather offered obvious advantages over fabric, providing greater support for the wearer, greater protection against the detritus found on the streets and a degree of waterproofing which was necessary given Britain’s wet climate.
Whilst footwear for women remained indebted to the flamboyancy of French fashions, for men shoes became increasingly sober in design. Often made of a monotone colour of leather, with a sensible and practical plain low heel, the only adornment would be a buckle. Indeed, whilst elaborate French fashions were de rigour for women, for men they began to carry the dangerous taint of effeminacy, as can be observed by the derision bestowed upon the figure of the ‘Macaroni’, a man who dared to wear his exuberant, fanciful (often French inspired) fashions in public.
In accordance with the mood of the period, shoe fashions undertook a revolutionary change during the 1780s and 1790s. Styles popular at the start of the century were completely out of fashion by the end. Inspired by the spirit of the French Revolution, the once popular high heel became synonymous with the strict hierarchy of the French aristocracy and the decadence of the royal court. Accordingly, as a sign of equality and fraternity, low heels were increasingly adopted.
For women, there were a variety of styles of low heels to choose from including delicate peg heels, shapely Italian heels, wedge-heels and, towards the end of the period, no heel at all. This new style was celebrated in the Gentleman’s Magazine which remarked, ‘Heels bear the precious charge, more diminutive than large, Slight and brittle, apt to break, of the true Italian make’. For men, high boots, previously worn for equestrian activities and by the military, became the staple for the fashion conscious. These simple, sturdy boots reflected a new subtly in men’s fashion and were a far cry from the decorative flamboyancy and heeled pomp of tastes earlier in the century.
In addition to rejecting the long-standing fashion for heels, buckles also fell out of favour. This shift in tastes had significant implications for the 8000 buckle makers, located mainly in the midlands. In a bid to protect their trade, in 1791 buckle makers and chape-makers (who made the iron-worked parts in the buckle) appealed to the Prince of Wales, who responded by ordering his household to wear the decorative fastenings. However, this small gesture was not enough, and by the turn of the century buckles on shoes were almost obsolete.