What 1940s outfit could be complete without the perfect pair of shoes? In the 1940s, shoes were, like everything else, very practical.
Shoes were very chunky by today’s standards, with a blunt toe box, stacked square heel (2-3 inches), thick decorations like bows and flowers, and thick wedge or platform soles . Since WWII efforts required all available leather, 1940s shoes were commonly made of heavy fabrics, straw, cork, rope, and reptile skins. Colors were brown, black, olive green, and light tan during the war years, with a splash of patriotic reds, whites, greens, and blues in the summer as well as pre and post wartime.
Rationing was in effect during the war, and women could not purchase more than 3 pairs of leather shoes in the USA. In Britain, women had up to 40 coupons to spend per year with shoes costing around 5 coupons each. Leather soles with fabric or alternative material shoes were not restricted.
What set women’s 1940s shoes apart from other decades were the handful of styles that were very popular. The following ten styles were the most common during the forties and are still readily found today. After reading the article, be sure to check out the 1940s style shoes page to shop for your very own pair of forties shoes.
1940s Oxford Shoes
For day wear, the stacked heel lace-up Oxford was the shoe that could be worn with anything. They were sturdy, practical, long lasting, and comfortable enough to wear around the house, when running errands, and for working jobs. Everyone had at least one pair in brown or black. They were minimally decorated with only some accent materials, such as patent leather or reptile skin, on the toes and heels and small holes called broguing that perforated the vamp or sides.
Oxford shoe heels were 1.5-3 inches high in Cuban or medium-stacked-leather heel shapes. The vamp was quite high on the foot, covering as much skin as possible. As the decade moved to thinner styles, the vamp moved down as well. High heel “walking oxfords” were ideally worn for dressy outings ans street-wear while low, almost flat oxfords were perfect around the house or sport shoes. They moccasin toe oxford was especially trendy with teenagers.
Many professional or uniformed occupations required women to wear walking oxfords such as nurses, maids, beauticians, waitresses, teachers and some office jobs. The no-frills oxford was the ideal, practical shoe for any occasion and nearly any outfit.
Today, heeled Oxfords have been back in style for a few years. Even the heels are stacked like they were in the 1940s! Pick up a pair to wear with your 1940s day dress or your everyday jeans — they look great with both!
The sling-back or bare-back shoe was another daywear style, as well as an evening pump. It had a rounded front, sometimes with a small peep-toe opening, and a strap attached with a buckle around the back of the heel. Evening shoes had taller heels, while day shoes could be as low as 1/4 inch or with a wedge sole. They were usually plain shoes without decoration or detail.
The beauty was in the simple, understated elegance of showing off a woman’s heel. They were considered a sexy shoe and well loved by pinup girls and Hollywood starlets. Shelly Winters infamously referred to this style as a “fuck-me” shoe, not because they attracted men, but because this was a phrase she said while prying the tight heels off her aching feet each night.
Many women took issue with wearing slingbacks and peep toe heels because they exposed stocking seams. Peep toes remained small for this reason, and slingbacks were usually worn in evenings when long skirts hid backseams. Eventually, manufacturers made reinforced heel and toe stockings to solve the problem.
Sling-backs have never left fashion since the ’40s. What makes new styles more forties than others is the chunky square heel or wedge sole, thick straps, plain dark colors, and a possible peep toe.
Slip In Pumps
Non-strap pumps were worn as well, in the same style as the sling-back. Pumps and sling-backs were often decorated with various types of bows attached onto the front of the shoe, and could also be decorated with perforations and cut outs. Detachable shoe clips were a great way to dress up a plain pump for daywear or be removed for evening wear in long dresses. Most came in black, brown or navy blue shade with a taller than average heel height- between 2 and 2- 3/4 inches. Heels tended toward the more curved Louis heel rather then the chunky Cuban heel.
The two tone “spectator” combination was a trendy way to make pumps more casual and sporty. Brown and white was very popular, with blue and white a close second. Black and white becoming more common as the decade progressed. The heel and two with dark with a wingtip toe box and white body. They looked great neutral suits and plain dresses.
What makes 1940s pumps so “vintage” today is once again the stacked heel and blunt toe but also the amount of material. Notice how high the sides go up and the toes are covered (no toe cleavage!) Most modern pumps barely have any material covering the foot. Pumps in the 1940s were modest even while being pretty.
The exception to the modest pump was the open-shank D’Orsay pump. It was ideally worn with the newer slim-line suits and dresses, matching the hardly there silhouette. They came in black patent leather or white suede.
1940s Peep Toes
Besides the wedge, the peep toe shoe is by far the most “forties.” 1930s shoes dabbled with exposing skin with cut outs and brogue perforations on dressy sandal-heels, but the ’40s were the first decade to expose the toe on every kind of shoe available.
Expose might be too strong of a word. There was a small hole at the toe of the shoe but the toes were hardly seen. A visible toe would have been just too “sexy” for the conservative values of the day. The small peep toe was just enough to be cute, but not vulgar.
Peep toes were found on pumps, slingbacks, wedges, loafers, sandals, flats and even slippers. Both casual and formal shoes embraced the peek-a-boo toe.
Trendy peep toe shoes today tend to be larger open toe designs. To be authentic, try to find small peep toes and other elements of ’40s shoes with adorable but large decorations, such as bows and flowers.
Ankle Straps and Mary Janes
For the evenings, sandal-shoes often had straps around the ankle or across the upper foot. The high ankle strap was mostly a formal afternoon or evening style. The style that favored the sexy ankle strap also favored less materials. Deeper cut-outs on the side of the shoe, multiple thin straps, an exposed heel, and a larger peep toe all added to the sleek nighttime romantic design.
Ankle straps could be attached to pumps, peep toes and wedges. They are associated with shoes of the second half of the decade where clothing was more feminine and longer, calling attention to a dainty foot. In summer, they were the perfect design for security+sandal.
Straps were thin compared to most other 1940s shoes and growing in numbers and placements closer to the 1950s. Cross straps, diagonal straps, multiple straps each made an appearance in the 1940s.
Both ankle strap and sandal-heel shoes are very easy to find today. As long as the heel is thick and decoration minimal, it will be right in line with the 1940s.
Wedges & Platforms
The most iconic of all 1940s shoes must be the wedge or wedgie shoe. The thick sole with raised heel was certainly sturdy, yet also sexy since it raised the heel and shaped a woman’s leg nicely. They could semi fomral but leaned toward the casual, especially in summer. Wedges combined with many other iconic ’40s styles, such as a sling-back strap, peep toe, ankle strap, loafers, or lace up oxfords.
Fabric covered the wooden wedge heel and matched the upper material too. Formal shoes could also have a wedge heel when made of all black patent leather or suede. Wedge heel heights were mostly low or reasonable walking heights. They were a favorite shoe for the entire decade.
Platforms began in the late 1930s as a beach shoe with a thin 1/8 to 1/2 inch sole. When Carmen Miranda became a movie star, so did her beloved platform shoes. American women jumped on the fad from 1945 till 1948. The British caught on in 1947. The French, however, had been wearing them with ultra tall soles for most of the decade. The typical platform height was only an inch or two at the most. When paired with a 3 inch heel, the overall raise of the arch was only an inch or so, making them appear tall yet still easy to walk in.
Since then, wedgies and platforms have come in and out of fashion. They became popular in the 1970s and again in the early 2000s, although the heels tended to be much higher.
During the summer, leather or canvas cloth wedge espadrilles became a big hit. They had a closed or open peep toe and laces that would wrap up the vamp and up and around the ankle. Teenagers had fun trying all the different way to tie them.
An equally popular summer sandal were foam sole “air sandals” with a woven or striped cotton foot and stretch ankle straps. They were festive, exotic, and colorful beach shoes that were “light as air” to walk in.
Occasionally there were straw or canvas wedge sandals with espadrille laces or ankle straps. Straw or woven fabric, called the California construction method, was used to make sandals in bright colors: red, blue, yellow, green. They almost always had a thick platform or wedge sole. The idea was that the platform would sink into the sand but keep the foot dry. These trended to be souvenir purchases at popular beach-side destinations.
Today’s wedge espadrilles tend to be styled on later decades, with thick laces wrapped up the leg and tied in a big bow. The 1940s versions had thinner laces and tied lower on the foot. Even so, many pin up styles embrace the modern espadrille and make it look very vintage!
The vintage 1940s sandal was not limited to espadrilles or air shoes. Sandals featured the least amount of material, yet true to the ’40s, they still had a chunky appearance with a thick sole, heavy buckles, and wide Mary Jane, X- or T-straps. Sandals were often open toe but could also feature large cutouts on the vamp, allowing for air to circulate.
Unlike dressy sandals, casual sandals were made up in plain leather colors (black, grey, white, brown) and an almost flat rubber sole. Shoes made of cotton canvas allowed for more color choices that could coordinate with an outfit.
The huarache style sandal was the one look that had many woven thin straps. They would become much more common in the 1950s, in more traditional waves and shapes. Read more about the history of vintage sandals.
Classic retro sandals are coming back in fashion. I recently found two ’40s style sandals on a shopping trip to my local shoe store. Keep an eye out for wedge sandals, low platform sandals and espadrilles this summer.
Saddle shoes were sporty white lace-up Oxford shoes with a darker colored panel in the middle of the shoe, usually in brown, black or navy. The sole was low with a very small heel and thick rubber brown sole (almost white by the end of the decade) was a casual shoe worn by mostly youth and teens, although many women enjoyed wearing them at home or for sportswear too. They wore them with dresses, skirts and pants and a pair of bobby socks folded down. Fashionable teens had to make new shoes look dirty — clean shoes were out of style!
Read more about the history of saddle shoes.
Today’s saddle shoes are almost all black and white, an iconic style of 1950s shoes. The brown/white pattern will be more difficult to find. Stick to the classic two tone colors and avoid bright pinks, greens and yellows to be more authentic looking. Shop women’s saddle shoes.
Loafers and Moccasins
Like most casual 1940s women’s shoes, loafers were a style of shoe borrowed from the men’s line. They were flat or very low heeled, easy to slip into, very comfortable, and trendy — especially with teens. Many women first started to wear loafers while working factory jobs during the war. They were so comfortable and practical that they became stylish footwear after the war, too.
The penny loafer style also called the Norwegian loafer featured a strap with a slit in the center placed across the vamp and over the tongue. They were almost always brown or two-tone brown and white worn with socks or bare feet.
Other slip-on style shoes such as the lace tied moccasin top, elastic side panel loafer, center seam lounger, and bow tie ballet flat were just a few of the varieties of causal women’s shoes. They came in leather, suede or canvas cloth in summer.
Today’s penny loafers are unchanged from the 1940s. Classic styles still exist and indeed are coming back into fashion again with some updated options, too. For women who can’t wear heels, the classic loafer or moccasin is the perfect 1940s style shoe to wear. Modern ballet flats are easy to find although many are very thin and completely flat instead of having a tiny ’40s heel.
These are just 10 of the common styles of 1940s shoes for women. There are, of course, other styles like slippers, winter rain and snow boots and sandals that I didn’t cover here. If you need help learning about shopping for any style of 1940s shoes, please feel free to leave a comment or contact me for help.