Curator's Corner Blog

The Changing Fashion of Women’s Shoes


Shoe’s from the HMFM Collections

Though it may seem a woman’s love for a variety of shoes in her closet has only been possible since the hemline of her skirt was shortened in the early 20th century, we have found an amazing assortment of stylish shoes in our “closet” at the Fort Missoula Historical Museum.


During the 1850s, women’s fashion introduced the steel framed crinoline hoop that allowed women’s skirts to swing while walking.  This would allow a peek at ladies’ ankles which inspired a need for boots.  They were made from silk, satin, or leather and were custom made for the wealthier women of society.  Beaded, embroidered, or bejeweled, the boots help preserve women’s modesty, for the ankle was never to be exposed.


Boots from HMFM Collections

By the 1870s, bustle skirts brought the fashionable hourglass look that extended to women’s shoes.  Many shoes had an hourglass, 2 inch heel.   The Fenelon (a multi looped bow) and button closures added to the fashion of the shoe.


By the 1880s, the United States began mass producing sturdy, fashionable, and fitted footwear that could be purchased at a fraction of the cost of custom made shoes, thus opening a market for women with smaller incomes.  Boots continued to dominate fashion, but new styles were available.  Rubber soles and canvas shoes were often used for lawn sports and some had a low heel.  These shoes became popular for use with the most exciting new activity – bicycling!


Buckle Shoes from HMFM Collections

The Cromwell shoe became popular during 1885 and 1900.  It sported a high tabbed front and buckle, reminiscent of 17th century Puritan shoes.


During the 1890s, heels could be as high as 6 inches.  But, by 1901, any heel over 3 inches was deemed uncouth.   Cuban heels made their debut in 1904.  These stacked leather heels of 2 ½ inches were popular through the 1910s.


The 1910s brought women’s liberation in many areas of American life, including shortened skirt lengths.  With the exposure of women’s ankles, the strappy look became the new fashion.  Boots were still considered daywear, but with the night came low heels and straps.  Many women preferred the narrow toe, often necessitated the removal of bones in the small toes so they would fit.  But what is the loss of a few bones to fashion?!


Thank goodness not all shoe manufacturers made tight, narrow shoes!  Pumps with small heels became popular for daywear by 1910.  Often made from satin or silk, these shoes were much more forgiving of the natural contours of women’s feet.


Shoes have not always been functional for upper class women.  We have found in our collection that many were simply for looks and outward displays of status.  In the following decades, France became the leader the in shoe fashion, and shoes for children became a target market.

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