A Little History of Oxblood Red Shoes

We love a good oxblood leather shoe here at American Duchess Historical Footwear! After all, there’s something a bit magical about red shoes, isn’t there? Possibly the boldest color out there, red is symbolic of so many things — from emotions like bravery and love to danger and power. Throughout history, people of generations past have also loved red leather shoes (King Louis XIV’s red heels, anyone??), including the rich color oxblood.

So what exactly is oxblood red, and why is it called that? 

Generally, the term oxblood is applied to a deep maroon-red color, like the color of red wine. As such, related colors include bordeaux, merlot, black cherry, and burgundy. And as you may have guessed, the shade name actually comes from the color of ox’s blood. For centuries, various parts of oxen were used as ingredients for household substances including horn, suet, organs, some things we would rather not mention, and yes — blood.

For example, ox’s blood was used in dyeing and coloring processes. According to a magazine published in 1799, ox blood could be used to strengthen the color of the natural red pigment produced from madder root, and the 1813 New Edinburgh Encyclopædia also mentions ox blood in dyeing recipes.

Red leather child’s shoes with silver buckle, English, c. 1750-1800. Victoria and Albert Museum, T.23 to C-1956.
Women’s shoes, the Netherlands, c. 1785-95. Rijksmuseum.
Women’s shoes, European, c. 1770-89. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Not only was ox’s blood used as a coloring agent in the eighteenth century, but by approximately 1695-1705, the term oxblood was also used as a color name. While we can’t know for sure, perhaps it would have been used to describe the gorgeous dark red leather eighteenth-century shoes above! Also, during the 1700s, the color oxblood became famously associated with a specific dark red ceramic glaze used in China.

Morocco leather and silk women’s shoes, England or France, c. 1800-1810. Museum at FIT 2015.34.1.
Pair of shoes, English, c. 1780-1799. Victoria and Albert Museum, 533-1897.

We know that red leather shoes were also in vogue for women in the early nineteenth century, or the Regency era, because of their existence in museum collections (see above) and their depiction in fashion plates! The two illustrations below from 1799 and 1803 show fashionable ladies wearing red garments and accessories in both full dress and morning dress, with red slippers to match.

It seems that oxblood (or “ox blood”) leather shoes only increased in popularity by the late nineteenth century, when it was listed as a leading color along with “chocolate” brown and “bottle green.” Department stores like Sears Roebuck & Co. carried oxblood shoe polish, oxblood shoe laces, oxblood hosiery, oxblood gaiters, and of course — oxblood shoes, available in both men’s and women’s styles. In the Sears catalogue page below, from 1897, oxblood was defined as a “dark wine” color.

Sears Roebuck & Co. catalogue, 1897.

Not only did oxblood appear in Victorian women’s oxford shoes and lace-up boots as you see above, but the museum collection examples below prove that dark red leather was also used in fashionable evening slippers, lovely scalloped button boots, and even at-home domestic footwear! Surely that proves that a Victorian lady could have sported oxblood shoes for every occasion, and all times of day, if she so wished! 

Red leather shoes, American, end of 19th century. Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 51.1997.
Walking boots from Dr. P. Kahler & Sons, American, c. 1910–20. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.5955a, b.
Slippers from Rosenbloom’s, American, c. 1892. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.1555a, b.

A variety of red leather colors, including oxblood, continued to be used in shoes for men and women during the early twentieth century. In fact, in the 1920s Sears Roebuck & Co. sold shoe dye in the shade oxblood so that the average person could permanently dye their leather goods at home. We fully support the act of dying your white or ivory leather shoes in order to achieve a perfect, custom shade of your own choosing. In fact, we even have some blog posts all about it!

Sears Roebuck & Co. catalogue, 1920.

By the 1930s, oxblood shoes were considered especially fashionable for the autumn season, to be worn with warm wools and tweeds. To complete the look, accessories like handbags and fine kid gloves were also available in oxblood — alongside other classic colors, like black, white, tan, gray, and green.

The deep, dramatic color has shown no signs of stopping in terms of its popularity and fashionability. A pair of oxblood Dr. Martens® combat boots from 1994 are in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. And in recent years, oxblood has continued to be a trending color — especially during the Fall/Winter seasons of 2012-2013!

Pair of Dr. Martens® Boots, Great Britain, 1994. Victoria and Albert Museum, T.515:1, 2-1994.

Could you do with some new oxblood shoes in your life? We think you’ll love our vintage and historical reproduction styles below, available in oxblood and many other colorways!

One Comment

  • Alice

    February 5, 2024 at 9:44 PM


    No wonder AD always has oxblood shoes! It’s such a beautiful color.

    You should do a Regency shoe in oxblood! Or a 20s spectator… 🙂 I’ve always loved the oxblood color because it easily goes with almost anything, unlike a brighter red.

    Also, those are some seriously pointy shoes in the 1897 Sears Catalog! I love seeing the different eras a color was popular in. I had no idea actual ox blood was used in the dyeing process at some point. Wow! Thanks for taking the time to write this informative post!

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