28 March 2023

Review: Shoes by Rebecca Shawcross

Shoes: An Illustrated History by Rebecca Shawcross book cover

* Copy courtesy of Bloomsbury *

I've always been interested in shoes, and as each year passes I find an increasing interest in history and social history in particular. Fortunately, these interests collide in Shoes: An Illustrated History by Rebecca Shawcross.

First, let me start this review with my impressions of the design and presentation, because this is a stunning hardback book with a beautiful dust jacket featuring a pair of shoes designed by Noritaka Tatehana in 2013. Filled with museum quality photographs on high quality paper and considerably weighty, Shoes: An Illustrated History by Rebecca Shawcross is a treasure to read and would make the perfect gift for those with an interest in fashion or history.

Shawcross gives us an entertaining tour through the fashion choices of the middle classes, wealthy and elite across Europe over the centuries, and it never ceases to amuse me how fashion cycles around, and every new design or trend is inspired by an old one. Typically speaking, those at the forefront of the trend are usually the young, while those approaching middle age and their senior years are less likely to keep up with the Joneses and tend to stick to what they like, which is often what they wore when they themselves were young. Hearing that an old man was referred to as 'old square toes' because he was still wearing square-toed shoes long after they were fashionable, reminded me of older men I knew growing up who were never seen without a hat.

Armed with only a basic knowledge of shoes and their construction, I was eager to understand the ins and outs - and rights and lefts - of the shoes being presented, but was occasionally left scratching my head. Did buckles really pierce the silk fabric of the latchet ties each and every time they were secured? And what's a vamp?* Many of my questions would have been easily answered if there had been a diagram or two pointing out the basics of footwear construction. As it was, I had to Google all of my queries which interrupted the reading flow and slowed down the overall reading process. *The vamp is the part of the shoe that covers the toes, also called the upper.

You might have heard about pattens - elevated clogs that you wear over your existing flat-soled footwear like snow shoes to keep your feet clean and dry - but have you heard of the slap shoe?

When high heels became popular, wearers could no longer wear pattens (which have a flat sole) however the high heel of their shoes sunk easily into the muck if it was the slightest bit wet. In the 1600s, in an effort to combat the problem without having to give up their heels, people started wearing their high heels slipped into a backless shoe, which we would call a slipper or a mule. Understandably, this made it cumbersome - and arguably dangerous - to walk, so a new shoe was designed, the slap shoe. If you can image a high heel shoe with the ball of the shoe stuck to a raised sole and the heel of the shoe free to lift from it, you have the slap shoe. Wearers would make a slap sound or clacking noise when they walked, similar to the sound some people make when they slap their thongs or flip-flops, hence the name. The sound indicated wealth and prosperity and became the height of fashion. Some slap shoes even had velvet on the sole to soften the sound. Sounds counterintuitive, but altogether fascinating doesn't it?

I was reminded reading this that shoes were once uniform in design and called 'straights' until the early thirteenth century. They could be worn on either foot, here's more:
"In the early thirteenth century, a shaped or waisted sole (the waist being the narrow part under the arch of the foot) appeared, which meant that shoes could now be made with left and right versions. Such an innovation probably increased the comfort of wearing shoes, too." Page 25
I can't imagine wearing straights now, I hope that fashion trend never resurfaces.

Another new to me shoe fact I loved learning about was the WWII invention of the escape boot. The escape boot was:
"... a high-legged leather boot with a fleece layer over a shrapnel-proof lining consisting of loose layers of silk. The boot's unique feature was that the leg section could be cut away from the vamp using a knife that was concealed in a pocket inside one of the boots." Page 190
Wearing these boots, British pilots were instantly recognisable to the enemy. However, if a British pilot was shot down or landed in enemy territory, they could take the knife from its hidden location and cut the tops off each boot. This transformed the boots into a normal looking pair of black shoes, giving the pilot a better chance of escape. Ingenious!

Other personal highlights in Shoes: An Illustrated History by Rebecca Shawcross included learning Terry De Havilland designed the shoes Tim Curry wore in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I'm going to see this show in June and am keen to check out the shoes worn by the show's new star, Jason Donovan. In fact I was surprised how many times I thought about this book in the normal course of my day while reading it. I attended the Alexander McQueen exhibition at the NGV this month, and was excited to see several pairs of McQueen's infamous 'Armadillo' boots worn most memorably by Lady Gaga in her Bad Romance music video in 2009.

I will say Shoes by Rebecca Shawcross isn't a quick read, you definitely need to take your time and I challenge you to read 30 pages without Googling. While I would have loved some diagrams laced throughout the book, I do understand the editing choice to leave this type of material out. The author covers a specialised topic, and most readers may already be familiar with the 'basics', however it would have made a huge difference for the layperson reader like me, particularly when it came to construction.

Shoes: An Illustrated History by Rebecca Shawcross gave me what I wanted from High Heel by Summer Brennan and was a luxurious and indulgent reading experience. From wide-toed footbags to long-toed poulaines; stilettos to winklepickers; plimsolls to pattens; and brogues to Birkenstocks, Shawcross has cobbled together a comprehensive overview of the history of shoes here and I loved it.

Highly recommended!

My Rating:

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