We’re Sports People Now: A Brief History of Victorian/Edwardian Tennis Shoes

Our latest pre-order features an especially fun style; a reproduction Victorian/Edwardian sporting shoe! This shoe is the ancestor of our modern sneakers. We call our version the “Kedwardian’ (heh heh). We were primarily inspired by this c.1905 pair of tennis shoes from the collection at the V&A museum. It’s like someone took a familiar canvas sneaker and put it into an Edwardianification machine! 

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London
©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

You may now be wondering, “How does a shoe like this come to be?” Like in modern times, recreational sports in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras weren’t just about recreation; they involved material culture, making social connections, and of course, fashion.

Lawn tennis became particularly popular amongst the leisure classes in the late 19th century/ early 20th century. When boxed sets, which included rackets, nets, balls, and everything else needed for a good game of lawn tennis, hit the market in the late Victorian era, a sports craze started in earnest. Lawn tennis was all the rage at outdoor parties and get-togethers. As lawn tennis wasn’t gender-restricted, like many other sports of the time, a good game provided lots of opportunities for fraternizing and putting on the charm while getting a bit of light exercise in. Historian Thomas Turner said that “social interaction and codified displays of wealth and status were integral to the game as a practice.” (Turner, 479). Ergo, a game of lawn tennis was the perfect opportunity to break out one’s latest fashionable tennis ensembles (Victorian athleisure, anyone?) 

Lawn-Tennis: the only paper devoted solely to Lawn Tennis. September 1886. Price one penny.

Late Victorian and Edwardian tennis outfits followed the conventions of fashions of the day. Long skirts, corsets, gloves and hats, and bustles were the name of the game. Many of these ensembles favored fashion over function, as long sleeves and skirts inevitably restricted movement in some capacity.

Tennis dress and tennis apron, c. 1870-1900, from the Manchester Art Gallery. Will need one of these adorable aprons ASAP, please!
A late Victorian tennis dress and early Edwardian tennis skirt, both from the collection at the Metropolitan Museum.

Sporty motifs in light colors were particularly popular, and of course, these outfits demanded some shoes to match. Since lawn tennis was played on a flat court made from grassy turf, players needed to be able to run, turn, stop suddenly, and move swiftly, without taking any embarrassing tumbles. 

Ad for Harrod’s sport shoes in Hearth & Home, June 1897.

Tennis shoes needed to be both easy to move in and gentle enough to avoid damaging the court. Enter the rubber sole. The same industrial manufacturing advances that made it possible for so many boxed lawn tennis kits to be sold also reformed the footwear industry. Shoemakers experimented with cotton canvas, rubber, different leathers, and other innovative materials. With access to these new materials, sporting shoes were made to be lighter, grippier, and more comfortable than ever before, and they sold very successfully.

Heels were a subject of contention when it came to women’s tennis shoes. Flatter soles were easier to run in, but heels were crucial to the footwear fashions of the time. Athletes like Wimbledon champs Lottie Dod, Charlotte Cooper, and Dorothea Lambert Chambers would wear flat-soled tennis shoes to optimize their game.

From left to right: Lottie Dodd, Charlotte Cooper, and Dorothea Lambert Chambers; early Wimbledon champions.

However, ladies who were more casual, at-home garden party players desired fashionable heeled tennis shoes. Tennis shoe manufacturers like Dunkley’s tried to compromise by engineering heeled women’s tennis shoes with a rubber sole that bridged the heel and the forefoot. The idea was to make a shoe that was adequately ‘feminine’ in appearance, without sacrificing too much function on the court.


Ad for H. Dunkley “El Dorado” women’s lawn tennis shoe

Lightweight, rubber-soled tennis shoes were cool, comfortable, and relatively low-maintenance. They were soon adapted for all manner of other sporting activities. Flexible styles with grippy rubber soles increased the ways that athletes could move, which meant that sports themselves evolved as well. Innovation!

Our reproduction Kedwardian shoes are accurate to circa 1900-1925. Just like the originals, they feature a cotton canvas upper and lining, rubber soles, flat woven cotton shoelaces, and metal eyelets and aiglets. That means that Kedwardians are leather-free! They are made on the same last as Gibson, Londoner, Lucille, and Bernadette. Kedwardians are SO lightweight and comfortable. We’re offering them in ivory, navy, and black, all popular canvas tennis shoe colors from the early 20th century.


Want to learn more about sport shoes? Shoe historian Thomas Turner, mentioned above, specializes in sneaker and sport shoe history. His article ‘The Production and Consumption of Lawn Tennis Shoes in Late Victorian Britain‘ was very helpful while researching the history of Victorian/Edwardian sport shoes. Turner has also written a book called The Sport Shoe: A History from Field to Fashion if you would like to learn more.

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