Shoes in the early years of the eighteenth century, for both men and women, were designed to complement the luxurious fashions of the period, adding a final flourish and touch of opulence to an outfit. For men, shoes formed a prominent and highly visible feature of their attire, punctuating the end of an elegantly stockinged leg. For women, a tantalising glimpse of a fine shoe might appear beneath a flowing gown when the wearer sat down, walked or danced.
High heels were common for both sexes, as was the use of sumptuous fabrics. Shoes typically included a high rising vamp (upper front part of the shoe) with ribbon-ties, which helped to shape the foot, giving it a long elegant appearance, as well as providing a space for decorative displays of silver lace, beadwork or embroidery. The use of such exquisite and expensive materials made the shoes of the wealthiest more than just functional items, instead they became aesthetic objects of desire and outward symbols of the wearer’s refined tastes and high social status.
The exuberance which characterised shoes of this period owed much to the fashions which had been laid down in the previous century. Shoes were made using traditional techniques including the use of straight lasts, which meant soles were identical, with no left or right. Whilst the squared toe characteristic of the late seventeenth century evolved into a point toe by 1710, the red ‘Louis’ heel, inspired by the court of Louis XIV of France and worn by England’s elite from the 1660s, was a trend which endured until the mid-1770s.
In the next couple of decades, the splendour of the new Hanoverian court was complemented by the exuberant tastes of Britain’s elite in their pursuit of the perfect shoe. Whilst leather was used for boots and outdoor shoes, for the wealthiest only expensive fabrics like brocades, silks, linens, satins and damasks would suffice. Sometimes fabrics would be chosen to match a specific item of clothing, however this practice was not standard until the end of the century. Rather, fabrics for shoes were chosen to emphasise the wealth, status and exquisite tastes of the wearer. French brocade was considered the most exotic and desirable fabric at this time, but by the 1740s English fabrics, made in Spitalfields, east London, were starting to compete in design and quality.
Trimmings were often equally lavish, including richly embroidered or woven patterns and expensive silver-gilt lace. These extravagant materials were increasingly accompanied by buckles instead of ribbon-tie fastenings, providing another opportunity for wearers to showcase their fashionable tastes and wealth. The most ornate buckles, purchased from jewellers, were made of gold, encrusted with precious and semi-precious gemstones. Such extravagance suggests that for the wealthiest, shoes were as much a fashion accessory as a means of protecting the foot.
Whilst lavish amounts of money were spent on shoes, reflecting the nation’s increasing mercantile and commercial fortunes, style and design also underwent an evolution. Between the 1720s and 1740s heels gradually lowered and widened, whilst toes became more pointed and upturned, helping to create a dramatic silhouette for the foot. The shape and location of the latchet fastening also changed, now forming a more distinct feature by fastening lower on the front of the shoe and intersecting the vamp in a more pronounced manner.
For those in pursuit of à la mode shoe design, France was the unrivalled leader and trend-setter. The influence of French fashion on footwear was felt widely in Britain throughout the century and could be seen most visibly in the 1750s with the importation of the highly fashionable French pompadour heel. Named after Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV, this elegant innovation gave shoes a lighter and daintier appearance. Whereas shoe heels of the previous decade had been quite sturdy and wide, rising only one inch or so in height, the French-inspired heels were markedly higher, narrower and more curved in shape. The location of the heel also subtly shifted, with the centre of balance now positioned directly under the instep.
The overall effect was something much more sinuous and sensual, making women’s feet look smaller and more feminine. However, it came at a price and walking with easy and elegant assurance was made much more difficult. This highly desirable but precarious to wear fashion trend was often the subject of ridicule. In 1753 the ‘Receipt for Modern Dress’ warned its readers about the new style declaring, ‘Mount on French heels, when you go to a ball, ‘Tis the fashion to totter and show you fall’.
Mules, another French fashion, also became increasingly popular in the period. Worn indoors for both formal and informal occasions, they were elegant though ultimately impractical for any period of sustained walking. The mule’s association with French fashions and the ease with which they could be slipped on and off by the wearer also led to their use as visual innuendos in paintings, where they were used to symbolize loose morals and decadent behaviour.