Practical Footwear, 1860-1880

AuntieNan asks:

What did they wear in the way of practicality, on a railway journey, say, or going to town?

Why, boots! Delicious, delightful boots!

Just like the re-emergence of the heel on slippers in the late 1850s, boots of this period also begin to have small heels applied.  By the 1880s, heeled boots were the norm, sporting either front lacing, or side-buttons, and a variety of interesting stylings.

Shoe-Icon Museum, 1850-60
LACMA, c. 1860
The Met: boots, 1863
The Met, 1863

Above are the four styles of boot closures, shown on wedding boots.  Just like wedding slippers, wedding boots were made of white or ivory satin, or a very soft, fine kid leather.  Boots like these, of course, are occasion-specific, but the same styles also came in some pretty bodacious colors:

Rare Robin’s Egg Blue button boots, c. 1870 – 1880s, Etsy
eBay, 1860s

LACMA, 1868

Within each decade, different characteristics emerge.  For instance, you will notice low, knock-on, kidney heels on 1850s and 60s boots, and side-lacing or elastic goring was in use.  By the late 1860s, and into the ’70s and ’80s, the scalloped fly on the side-buttoning boots was all the rage, and heels began to move from knock-on kidney shapes to French heel construction.

The Met: boots, 1883
Manchester City Galleries, 1875-85

Boots from this period only feature one common characteristic – a square toe, gradually rounding off, then getting pointier as we moved towards the 1890s.  It is impossible to say that all boots of this time frame had heels – they didn’t – or were buttoning – they weren’t.  There are trends, however.  For instance, side-lacing boots and elastic goring were common in the 1860s, but fell out of favor in the 1870s.  The scalloped fly was common in the 1860s and 70s, but fashion begins to lean more to the straight fly near the end of the 1880s.  These aren’t rules, just trends.

So what would a lady be wearing on a train journey? Why, most likely a pair of fashionable leather, heeled boots with a nice sturdy heel. 🙂

Originally publish January 6, 2013


  • ZipZip

    January 7, 2013 at 12:44 AM

    Dear Lauren,
    How interesting! Have never seen a visual timeline in the boot dept. before.

    Question: what is a "knock-on" heel? Does it have something to do with construction?

    Thanks kindly,


    • Lauren Stowell

      January 7, 2013 at 12:56 AM

      Hi Natalie –
      A knock-on heel is one that is wrapped in the material of the shoe (leather, satin, etc.), with a visible seam in the material on the breast of the heel (the part under the arch). The heel is attached, or "knocked on" and the sole is glued or stitched on separately. (

      A French or Louis heel is a curvaceous shape where the leather of the sole is applied to the breast of the heel, and curves up and under the arch of the foot all in one with the rest of the sole. (

      Knock-on and French heels do refer to construction – for instance, you can have a Spanish heel with a French heel construction, or a stacked Cuban heel with a knock-on heel construction. The terms also refer to heel shapes – knock-ons are kidney or opera heels, and French heels are the curvy heel with the prominent waist and flare at the base.

      Here is a primer on heel types that explains it, though not specifically construction, but there are examples of each to illustrate the differences:

    • AuntieNan

      January 7, 2013 at 1:04 PM

      Fabulous! Thanks so much for this tutorial! Thanks to you I know what to call my fave heel when I'm trolling the Internet!
      I once bought some beautiful 1920s shoes from a shoemaker who had a warehouse of unsold goods (doesn't THAT make you drool!) who explained that wrapping the sole up the arch and the breast of the heel gave extra support to the foot, when that piece of leather was all one, and he claimed it was one reason the dance shoes of the 20s and 30s were so comfy! I don't know about the science of that explanation, but his shoes were more comfortable to wear onstage than my more modern t straps, for instance!

  • Robin's Egg Bleu

    January 7, 2013 at 3:45 AM

    Ooh, we are going into the early bustle period at our San Diego house museum and boy, do we need better shoes. The Civil War boots available just don't cut it.

  • Rachel

    January 7, 2013 at 4:22 AM

    Oh my goodness, love love love them! I was thinking like Auntie Nan – I wanted to see pictures of everyday wear or practical wear as well! Thanks so much for sharing!

    • Lauren Stowell

      January 7, 2013 at 9:13 PM

      Absolutely! There are some splendid examples of brightly colored satin boots, sometimes with little bows or flowers on the toes, or with fringe around the tops.

  • Unknown

    January 7, 2013 at 7:01 PM

    What gorgeous shoes! The black and gold pair are marvelous! I've always wondered how the women who wore these boots had such tiny ankles with such rounded heels, like in the 1883 Met black pair. Do they have padded or stuffed heels to make their ankles look smaller or were they just very narrow?

    • Lauren Stowell

      January 7, 2013 at 9:17 PM

      Hi Pippi – the answer is two-fold. One is that yes, women's ankles were very narrow, NOT because of genetics, but because they were literally bound up in tight-fitting footwear from an early age, and, like waists, retained their slender shape.

      The other reason is that many boots were made ready-to-wear (not all, shoes were still custom made, but during this time we see more mechanization and modernizing of all areas of fashion, and how it is sold to the public), and slim ankles look "better" in the shop window than "fat" ones. The lady who purchased the boots would have the buttons moved to fit her ankles precisely. We see this a lot on extant pairs.

    • Unknown

      January 8, 2013 at 6:32 PM

      Blimey, it must have been awful to walk in bound feet – it's like the western version of the golden lotus foot binding! I had no idea that they did that, I suppose it just goes to show that women then were just as susceptible to advertising and body dictating fashion trends as we are now. Thank you for answering my question, I always feel like I'm learning things when I read your blog!

    • Lauren Stowell

      January 9, 2014 at 10:33 PM

      Hi Joan – part of the reason they look so narrow is because they are long – the toes of the boots were extended well beyond the toes of the foot, to achieve that square-ish, flat toe without toe boxes. Another part of the reason is because women's feet were indeed smaller and narrower. Like corsets, women wore very tight-fitting shoes/boots from youth. Small and delicate feet were the beauty ideal, so women literally wore shoe that we would consider too small, in an effort to achieve this. Over years of this practice, one's feet will literally shrink (or not grow fully), just like Chinese foot binding, but less extreme.

  • Elizabeth

    January 9, 2014 at 8:30 PM

    Great post! I would love to see you do a post about daywear shoes (not boots) of this period. I see them in the fashion plates but I have no idea what they really looked like.

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