The most remarkable thing about women’s shoe history in the 1920s was that they were visible! Long garments of the decades before covered up ladies shoes making their style and decoration in the family of pretty lingerie — a secret only the wearer would know about. All that changed when hemlines rose above the ankle and kept on rising to the knee. Now shoes were seen and admired and matched to not only the style of the garment but the season, too. This caused clothing designers to design new clothes with shoes in mind. They often became shoe designers as well as dress makers.
Women had special indoor house shoes, outdoor walking shoes, dancing shoes, sporting shoes, and even swimming shoes. The demand for new shoes, in new styles, every season made custom fit shoe ordering a thing of the past. Now shoes were made in standard sizes ready to buy from your local clothing store or mail order catalog. The shoe industry exploded in the 1920s.
History of Roaring 20s Shoes
The following is an overview of women’s shoe fashion trends in the 1920s. For a more detailed look at the different styles of shoes, read Vintage 1920s Shoes: The Top 10 Styles for Women (many pictures, too. Best viewed in a web browser). You might also like this Pinterest page with both vintage and new 1920s shoe pictures. Or skip the history and a buy a pair of new 1920s style shoes for yourself.
Shoe heels for day wear were sturdy “Louis” heels. Also called tango, curved, Spanish or vintage heels, they were about 2 inches high. 1 inch Cuban heels were common with house and walking shoes. 1 3/4 inch “Military heels” were the perfect height for sporty Oxfords. Rubber heels and soles were added to walking shoes for comfort and stability in the mid ’20s, otherwise leather soles remained the standard.
Toes were very pointed in the early years, following the Edwardian shoe trend, then rounded out in the mid twenties and became almost square in the late 1920s.
Materials– Outdoor shoes were made of leather from calfskin, lizard, alligator, or goat. Muted tones or shiny patent leather were equally popular for day and evening. Sport shoes were made of sturdy gaberdine or canvas cloth. Indoor shoes were pretty satin, grosgrain, brocade, or lamb skin materials.
“Strap pump” shoes were the trendiest. Single strap shoes across the vamp were called strap shoes in the ’20s and Mary’s Jane’s today. Double straps crisscrossed in an X pattern or were straight across in the double or triple strap style. The most iconic, however, was the Sally Pump T-Strap, or T-Bar (British), with a strap coming from the toe to the vamp creating a “T.” All straps were thin and getting thinner as the decade progressed. Cutouts in the straps and eventually shoe body gave them an even, more delicate feel. A strap alternative was a ribbon looped through eyelets on either side and tied in a bow at the center.
Formal shoes kept the straps but also removed the straps forming the slip on pump or court shoe. Higher French heels called for walking on the toes, which made them perfect for dancing shoes. Gold or silver paint, rich velvet, or heavy beading in flashy deco patterns and colors made dancing shoes stand out. Zig zags, swirls, flower appliques, embroidered seems all added pizzazz. The patterns were inspired by the Oriental and Greek Art.
Colors for day shoes tended to be shades of black, brown, grey, and beige. The sporty two tone shoes of brown & white or brown & tan grew increasingly popular. The more trendy women chose bright colored shoes in bold red, orange, blue, white, and any combination of these together. Red bodies with blue heels, sometime striped, gave a decidedly Art Deco look.
Buckles and buttons (Fasenettas) were covered in precious stone and metal sequins over diamante onyx (shiny black), bronze and pearl. Button covers made decorative plain shoes affordable to the poor.
1920s Shoes Today
Antique 1920s shoes are wonderful works of art to collect and decorate your home with. They are not however very useful to wear. Materials deteriorate and the fit usually doesn’t work with our modern wide feet and larger sizes. (After years of women squeezing their feet into tight leather boots, their feet were deformed into very narrow sizes.) If you happen to have small feet and can find a pair of leather 1920s shoes, by all means, wear them! Fabric shoes will typically be too delicate after sitting around for 100 years.
For the rest of us, we have some 1920s style shoe options:
Reproduction shoes – There are just a few small companies that make reproduction historical footwear using modern sizes and materials. I have a list of these companies here. Many shoes are paintable or dyeable so get creative and give them some color (or leave them white for some fabulous wedding shoes).
New 1920s style shoes – Reproduction shoes can still be out of budget for many people or too “costume” looking for everyday shoes. That is where buying new 1920s style shoes makes perfect sense. I keep an eye out for any shoe with a T-strap, or thin Mary Jane strap in black, white or tan since they go with the most outfits. I also look for heeled Oxfords with lace ups and sporty two tone shoes for casual wear. If you can’t wear a heel, there are many low heel pumps, Oxford flats and saddle shoes that would look great with your ’20s outfit. New shoes can range in style from almost reproduction to very modern with contemporary heels, buckles and colors. Whatever look you are going for, there is a shoe for you!
Recycled Shoes- For you creative types or broke students, a pair of shoes from your closet or thrift store can be a great start to a pair of 1920s style shoes. Take any T-strap, Mary Jane or pump and:
-Paint! Using shoe paints or colorful shoe polish you can transform your plain shoes into an Art Deco work of art. Look at vintage shoe pictures for inspiration and pick colors that will be bold. No need to match your shoes to your dress. That was a trend that went out of fashion after 1922. Your shoes should coordinate with your accessories — hats, shawl, jewelry, etc. See this shoe painting tutorial with a link to buy shoe paints, too.
– Dye – If you have a pair of white satin wedding shoes chances as the fabric is dyeable. Use RIT fabric die to change the color then decorate as you wish.
– Bedazzle! 1920s formal shoes had plenty of sparkling heels, decorative vamps and pretty buckles. You can buy rhinestones or beads and glue them on or use peel and stick sparkles for a temporary and quick fix. Sparkle stickers can be found in the scrap book section of your local craft store. (The two black shoes with sparkle rhinestones above used stickers.)
Fabric coverings – I haven’t tried this, but several friends have done it with good success. Use a thin silk or satin fabric and glue and recover old shoes. Use binding tape for the seams. Here is one tutorial.
Have you made a pair of 1920s style shoes? Tell us about them in the comments.