IF THE SHOE FITS

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IF THE SHOE FITS

By Claire Regnault

This model of a shoemaker fitting his elegant client was produced by the english porcelain company Derby around 1780. The composition, however, is modelled on a Sèvres group designed by Étienne-Maurice Falconet (1716-1791), which in turn is believed to have been inspired by François Boucher’s paintings of women at their toilette.

In this beautiful study in white, the shoemaker – perhaps holding his client’s leg a little too firmly, and gazing up at her a little too lovingly – slides a newly made shoe onto her foot. As the matching shoe, which can be seen next to the shoemaker’s own foot, reveals, it is a ‘straight’, that is a shoe with no left or right. On her other foot she wears a mule, a backless slipper popular amongst both men and women for casual indoor wear.

The lady’s new shoe features a waisted heel and an upturned pointed toe – the combination of which was designed to give the illusion of a desirable dainty foot. The latchets, which flop over the shoemaker’s hand, are yet to be fastened. In the 18th century latchets were fastened with either ribbons – as is the shoemaker’s own shoe – or buckles. The latter grew in size throughout the century and reached their extreme in the 1770s with the ‘Artois buckle’, which was named after the Comte d’Artois, who was renowned for his style and extravagance.

Viewed as an item of jewellery, buckles were purchased separately from shoes, and used on multiple pairs, which is why so few shoes survive with buckles intact. Buckles could be relatively plain, fashioned from steel or brass, or highly elaborate, set with real or paste jewels. Glittering in the candlelight, such buckles helped draw the eye to a delicate foot or in the case of a gentleman, a shapely ankle. Wedgwood even designed cameos to be set into buckles.

The upper of the shoe being fitted would have been made from leather, painted kid, wool or brocaded or embroidered silk. In the glazed versions of this composition, the shoe is often painted to match the fabric of the lady’s dress. In reality, however, it was impractical to purchase a pair of shoes to match every dress. As shoes were glimpsed at a distance amongst skirt ruffles and in flickering candlelight, people were not concerned about a perfect match. Nor was symmetry a concern. As the shoes illustrated show, no effort has been made to match the patterning of brocaded silk on the vamp. This is quite typical. Attention to detail, however, was paid elsewhere. In the shoe trade, women’s shoes were deemed more difficult to make than men’s. In 1747 R. Campbell wrote in The London Tradesman. Being a Compendious View of All the Trades, Professions, Arts, both Liberal and Mechanic, now practiced in the Cities of London and Westminster that,

It is much more ingenious to make a Women’s shoe than a Man’s: few are good at both … the Woman’s shoemaker requires much neater Seams as the materials are finer. They employ Women to bind their shoes and to sew the Quarters together, when they are made from Silk, Damask or Callimanco.

The style of shoes seen in The Shoemaker dominated the 18th century until the 1780s, when fashion began to undergo a series of dramatic changes, which were further accelerated by the French Revolution. These changes can be detected throughout the portraits in The Johnston Collection as stays, panniers and polonaise skirts give way to simpler gowns inspired by classical dress. Conspicuous displays of wealth, such as large showy buckles, became inappropriate.

In keeping with the fashion for classical dress, shoes also became simpler, with heels giving way to flat slippers and ‘sandal shoes’. While some slippers had a low heel, many were completely flat comprising a thin leather sole onto which satin uppers were delicately stitched. Wearer’s could personalise their slippers with the addition of a rosette, bow or silk ribbon ties which criss-crossed around the foot and ankle. Some patterns were so simple that women could make their own slippers at home. Luckily, such slippers were relatively cheap to make as they were not very durable. Reportedly, the Empress Josephine had over 500 pairs.

The new preference for flats witnessed a gradual return to ‘left’ and ‘right’ shoes, although women were slower to give up their straights than men. The pair of mauve slippers by the French shoemaker Melnotte, are labelled ‘droite’ and ‘gauche’, left and right, although the difference is difficult to discern. Slippers remained in fashion for well over half a century.

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This article was originally published in fairhallissue 22, October 2017, pp 21.

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