The Colorful Shoes of the 18th Century

Adorned with decadent decorative arts and steeped in affectation, it’s no surprise that the French Court led European preference for elaborate clothing and accessories—everything from luxurious wigs to the colorful shoes of the 18th century.

Just as the formal ladies’ Robe à la Francaise showcased lavish embroideries and silk damask fabrics, so too did footwear display the very best of the era’s woven artistry.

Both ladies and gentlemen were expected to be fluent in fine arts, music, and dancing and behave with the utmost grace and poise.

This exuberance was no less manifested in the footwear of the period—the colorful shoes of the 18th century.

1700. French. Silk, leather
1700. French. Silk, leather
1709. European. Silk
1709. European. Silk
c1710s. European. Silk. Leather
c1710s. European. Silk. Leather

Trending toward the lighter floral decoration of Rococo in the first quarter of the 18th century, the predecessor to the classic buckle was the latchet tie (shown below).

When buckles did become available later in the century, they were often retrofitted to latchet tie shoes to extend their life.

1720. British. Silk, leather
1720. British. Silk, leather
1721. British. Silk, metal
1721. British. Silk, metal
1729. British, Silk
1729. British, Silk

“Bargello” or flame stitch was an embroidery style most commonly used for upholstery and personal accessories, but also for shoes.

The bold zigzag wool canvas pattern shown below extends to the heels, which was unusual for the time—more often being silk or leather.

1729. British. Wool, linen, metal
1729. British. Wool, linen, metal
1729. British, Wool
1729. British, Wool
1729. British. Silk. Metallic
1729. British. Silk. Metallic
1739. European. Wool
1739. European. Wool

Wel-established in the 17th century and continuing into the 18th was a decorative style of braid with multiple parallel rows.

Pinched toes, high throat, flared tongue with small side opening, and sturdy high heel rounded out this popular style.

Ties were still in fashion and were the main method of closure until the buckle was introduced later in the century.

1739. British, silk
1739. British, silk
1739. European. Silk, gold, leather
1739. European. Silk, gold, leather
1740. British. Silk. Metallic
1740. British. Silk. Metallic
1745. British. Silk
1745. British. Silk

Inspired by an Indian floral design, this pair of ladies shoes (below) shows the penchant for patterned fabrics.

Ladies would sometimes embroider the upper themselves and take it to a shoemaker to be made into shoes. Published in ladies magazines, embroidery patterns had become popular by the last quarter of the 18th century.

1749 British silk
1749 British silk
1755. British. Silk, metal
1755. British. Silk, metal

Eye-catching textile designs were a favorite choice of aristocratic ladies.

The red heel and white strip along the shoe’s front edge coordinate well with the uppers.

A wide metallic ribbon down the center of the vamp was a popular decoration of the period.

1759. British. Silk, leather, metal
1759. British. Silk, leather, metal
1759. European. Silk
1759. European. Silk

Popular for about 100 years, striped braid is shown below toward the end of its fashionable period in the monochrome preference.

Despite a buckle that would hide the intricate pattern, the braided tongue was fashioned with an attractive star design.

1759. European, Silk
1759. European, Silk

Bold and colorful, the finely worked flame-stitch canvas upper was a common embroidery style.

The higher, more upright heel and blunt toe—free from the upturn of earlier designs—shows the progression of fashion through the 18th century. Gone is the metallic decoration down the vamp’s center, but of note is the unusual printed silk adorning the heel.

1769. British. Wool. Linen. Silk
1769. British. Wool. Linen. Silk

Fashionable from the late 1770s were pointed tongues—sometimes reworked from an original square tongue as shown below.

Increasingly favored as the 18th century progressed were simpler, lighter textile designs. In this case, the silk uppers have been carefully cut to show off the brocaded motifs.

1770. British, silk
1770. British, silk
1775. French. Silk, metallic
1775. French. Silk, metallic

Plainer than ladies shoes, those of gentlemen did, however, have decorative aspects. Red heels were a favorite among aristocrats—a style inherited from the French courts of the 17th century.

1779. British, leather
1779. British, leather
1780 American silk
1780 American silk
1780. British. Silk
1780. British. Silk
c1780. French. Leather
c1780. French. Leather
1785. European. Silk, leather
1785. European. Silk, leather
1789. European. Silk
1789. European. Silk

Embodying the pointed toe and tongue from ladies styles, this rare pair of children’s shoes (below) is in unusually good condition.

This type of flat-heeled shoe was common among boys and girls, although the bright color suggests they complemented the more colorful feminine dress of the period.

1790 European leather
1790 European leather
1795. American. Silk
1795. American. Silk