Summer is approaching fast and for me, that means a trip to the shoe store is in order (once they reopen.) I eagerly look forward to wearing a pair of sandals all summer long, and when possible, a pair of retro sandals or vintage sandals to go with my vintage-inspired outfits. Over the past few years, I have found some wonderful wedges, cork heel sandals, and strappy flats. What will I find this year? I can’t wait to find out.
In the meantime, let us take a look at the history of women’s vintage sandals from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s to see what the trends were and how to find that style again today.
You can also skip the history and shop for sandals here.
The first record I have of sandals from my catalog collection is in the 1920s. The main difference between a sandal versus a low heel Oxford was the number of cutouts around the toe and vamp. These were not open toe sandals at all, but with all the cutouts they were breathable and ideal for summer days. They were also made of leather, suede or canvas and featured a very low rubber tipped heel. They were worn at the beach or by teens on their summer breaks. Men had sandals with cutouts, too, although they were not very popular yet.
Most sandals were T-straps or Mary Jane straps. They looked like low heeled shoes worn with all other clothing. The difference between them was only in the materials, the cut outs for ventilation, and with a slightly more sporty look. Cutouts on the toebox is what set sandals apart from other summer heels with cutouts on the top or sides.
With the Mah Jong game trend, some sandals had Asian prints embossed on leather or unique cutouts. The idea was they looked like Chinese house slippers.
There were separate shoes made for swimming and beachwear that were made of canvas with rubber soles. Some beach shoes looked like tall lace-up boots, while others were simple Mary Jane shoes or flat rubber Oxfords. They paired well with the emerging Beach Pajama outfit and swimsuits. Read more about swim shoes here.
1920s sandals today: These are not easy to find with a dressy low heel, however, if you look at only the top of the shoe you can find many pairs with strappy or cutout tops with a modern “comfort” sole. Choose brown, grey, black or blue colors in leather or suede. Avoid open toe sandals, tall heels, wedges and flip flops.
Going into the 1930s, cutouts on shoes were all the rage! They were the signature element of nearly all shoes in the 1930s. Cutouts came in all shapes and sizes and in all types, from walking Oxfords to high heeled pumps. Thick and thin straps, brogue (holes), angled, swirled- the ventilation shapes were vaste. Most summer heels were white but bright colors came in in the later years – candy apple red, yellow, blue.
By the end of the 1930s, a small cut out in front of the toe started the “peep toe” revolution. It was the first time women’s toes were visible in the 20th century. It was also a time when it was still acceptable to wear socks with sandals. They looked best with skin tone socks or light colors that matched the shoes.
A true 1930s “sandal” was still a very low heeled shoe. Many sporty types were made of white canvas with a rubber sole- perfect for the beach, tennis, or any casual outfit.
The lace up ghillie shoe was a shoe that wanted to be a sandal. They were favored in summer, made of leather or canvas and sometimes straw. It was fun figuring out all the different ways to tie the laces up and around the ankle.
1930s style sandals today come and go in fashion. The taller heel and full strappy body of the 1930s has generally been replaced by a almost naked flat modern sandal. Ghillies also come and go in fashion but when they are in- grab ’em for your 1930s outfits. I keep my eye out for an white dressy shoes, sandal heels, or oxfords with cutouts or holes for my summer outfits.
The 1940s continued expanding the tiny peep toe into a much larger open toe. The cutouts grew less dainty and more chunky to go with the entire ’40s movement of utility and function over beauty. Straps were few and wide but covered a lot of the foot.
The wedge and platform heel were the newest soles for both shoes and sandals. Sandal heels were at least 1.5 inches, but usually taller. Flat sandals had a modest thick sole or low platform heel.
Colors were neutral brown, black, grey and white leather during the war years with bright primary colors popping up in the later years. Yellow, red, green and blue made the sandals stand out at the beach. Some sandals took inspiration from nautical life and came in striped patterns. Blue and white, red and white, rainbow or pastel stripes were all nice alternatives to plain colored shoes.
The wedge sole shoes dominated most 1940s casual fashions. In the summer, the wedge sole shoe had a peep toe, straw base, big flat bow or multiple straps and ankle strap or slingback to keep it secure on the foot. Wood, cork or covered wedges soles were also popular. The height of the wedge was of a comfortable few inches- not the giant stilts most wedges are made of today (which are based on the ’70s.)
1940s sandals today are getting easier to find. Wedges have been in fashion for a few years and platform heels are making a come back. The trick is to finding sandal heels that are not too tall or too naked. 1940s sandals should look modest, simple, and practical. Choose neutral colors or primary colors for some “pop.”
The 1950s saw an explosion of colors and strap designs on sandals. The popular wedge heel of the 1940s continued into a trendier platform wedge. Straps were wide or narrow with one or many buckles. There wasn’t a single defined style. Variety was everything in the 1950s, and that included textures. The trend for tropical vacations meant a wave of sandals being made of woven straw, raffia, and rope. They often had embroidery on the vamps that coordinated with an outfit.
Beach sandals were best when flat, very flat, with many straps crisscrossing over the vamp and around the heel. Thick or thin leather straps were both offered in vibrant summer colors. Other flats took on a futuristic look with a single bar across the toe or one strap up the center. Flat sandals were usually worn with beach /pool clothing, capri pants, and shorts.
Rubber thongs or flips flops had their debut in the late 1950s and quickly became a teenager favorite. Many parents didn’t like how noisy they were. The household rule became girls could only wear them if they couldn’t be heard. Barefoot girls now could quickly slip on a pair of flip flops and run down the street chasing the ice cream truck without burning their feet. Oh, the joys of summer!
For general wear with a summer dress, many women still preferred heeled sandals in either platform or wedge styles. Wedges were especially trendy with two tone colored straps or large cutouts and a crepe rubber sole. Many sandals were being made of sporty sneaker materials like canvas, denim and cotton twill, which made them washable.
1950s sandals today are easy o find simply because there were so many varieties to choose from. Wedges, peep toes, multiple buckle straps, mules, platforms, espadrilles, flats, flip flops, etc. You can’t go wrong with almost any sandal available today. I like bright color strappy flats, wedges and espadrilles for most of my 1950s outfits.
The flat sandal was the only kind of trendy sandal in the 1960s. Some had a scant 1/4 inch heel, but that was about as tall as they came. “Less is more” was the mod style of the decade. Sandals had thinner straps and fewer of them. Straps around the heel kept the slipper sandals in place. Flip-flop sandals with a toe wedge were available but the cross strap, T-strap, and multi-strap sandals were preferred with wide open toe to shoe off the latest pedicure.
Mod sandals came in bright fun colors like sunshine yellow, lime green, hot pink, and retro orange. Just like everything else in the decade, sandals were made of synthetics, especially vinyl and patent leather with a high shine factor. Big daisy flowers, buttons, and geometric cutouts decorated some sandals but most were plain- letting the color speak for themselves.
The natural leather flat sandal was inspired by everything Italian. Sandals were imported in deep brown leather with a natural, earthy, simplicity. The hippies loved them. Neutral colors were popular in the early pre-mod years and again in the last year with a heavier appearance leading into the 1970s.
1960s sandals today are hit and miss if you want the bright mod colors. Luckily most flats with skinny straps will give you enough of a retro 60s look. I find shiny vinyl sandals for cheap which means they may only last one summer so sometimes I buy two and save a pair for next year.
Going into the 1970s saw flats go away again and the platform came back. Taller and chunkier than the ’50s style, the platform sandal quickly became an iconic shoe of the decade. Large block heels and wide straps with harness metal details were typical designs for daywear. Evening sandals such as those worn to disco dances were thin and strappy.
The mod style sandal continued well into the 1970s with bright colors and simple shapes. Straps were very wide instead of thin. Comfort sandals became the new buzzword for padded soles and softer materials.
There was a brief trend for the gladiator sandal in the early years. Pattie Boyd was frequently seen wearing them to music festivals as early as 1967. The tall laces accentuated her thin legs and short skirts!
The woven sandal, like the huarache, became a popular texture along with macrame, denim, canvas, rope, and burlap.
Natural was in style for most of the 1970s. Brown leather, cream colored macrame, tan canvas adored most tall and low sandals. The wedge sandal came back from the 1940s with an even bigger heel height.
1970s Sandals today: The current boho movement is copying 70s style shoes today. Chunky platform sandals and wedges are everywhere this year. You can also find low heel or flat natural leather sandals. It is a great time if yo love the 70s.
Vintage Sandals for Today’s Woman
Almost every shoe brand has a pair of sandals that can work for at least one retro vintage decade. Some of my favorite brands, especially if you need a more modern comfort cushion, are:
Kork Ease – Started in 1958 their hey day was in the 1970s with wedge and platform strappy sandals. I love my Myrna sandals which I think work perfect for the 1940s to 1970s.
Clarks – Ask women what brand the love for comfortable shoes and Clarks always comes up. I have been wearing a pair of Clarks Lexi sandals since last year and I love them. Durable, comfortable and very cute! They have style that will work for the 1920s-1930s, which is hard to find, as well as pretty much every other decade.
Hotter – Hotter is well known as a comfort shoe brand the UK (free shipping to the USA). I have several pairs of heels, boots, wedges and sandals that I can walk all day in.
Salt Water Sandals- These classic flat sandals work well for the 1950s to 1970s. They come in every color imaginable. They don’t have a comfort footbed, but I hear that are amazing to wear anyways.
Shop Retro Vintage Sandals
See even more retro and vintage style sandals: