Designing Historical Shoes: 18th-Century Style

Did you know that American Duchess has been designing 18th-century shoes since 2011? In fact, our very first design ever was the “Georgiana,” a satin 18th-century latchet shoe. (Oh, and here’s a bit of company lore — the very first shipment actually caught on fire.) Between 2011 and 2024, we have designed over two dozen unique 18th-century footwear styles and currently carry ten.

As you might imagine, designing 18th-century shoes is super fun — though it can also be challenging to adapt these historical styles of yesteryear into something familiar to the twenty-first-century customer and comfortable for all-day wear.

In this blog post, we’ll broadly cover the varieties of 18th-century shoes we have designed while providing some insight into their historical inspirations and the design process.

Mules

At the very beginning of the eighteenth century, mules were fashionable footwear for men and women. This was a backless, slip-on shoe typically with a high heel. (While a contemporary term for this style was “slipper,” we’ve retained the word mule to distinguish between other slip-on styles that do have backs.) Many surviving pairs were made with sumptuous silk uppers and were lavishly embroidered with metallic thread. We love that! However, they were also made on straight lasts — in other words, there was no left and right shoe. All of our reproductions are left and right-lasted for maximum comfort.

This is an undeniably dainty style perfect for the feminine whimsy associated with the rococo period. You can spot them in artworks by famous French painters François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard, like the examples below.

Les Hasards heureux de l’escarpolette, c. 1767, by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, in the Wallace Collection in London.
Francois Boucher, La Toilette, 1742, from the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.
Portrait of Madame de Pompadour by François Boucher, 1756, collection of Alte Pinakothek.

Our first 18th-century mule design, called Antoinette, is historically accurate to circa 1700 – 1770s and was designed with those French rococo examples in mind. Of course, we also looked at stunning antique shoes in museum collections to inform this design.


The following artifacts are both 18th-century originals and “colonial revival” styles from the Edwardian period that inspired our embroidered satin Antoinette shoe with custom 2.5 in / 6.3 cm leather-covered French heels. (You can view more examples here!)

Aren’t they beautiful??

In 2023, ten years after we released Antoinette, we also released the Charlotte mule. This style features the same last and heel but with a regal gold rand welt piping and without the embroidery, giving a versatile minimalist look!


Another 18th-century mule design, called Sophie, was released in 2018. Historically accurate to c. 1760s – 1790s, this style works wonderfully for both working and upper-class Georgian-era impressions. What sets them apart from Antoinette and Charlotte is that Sophie is made in 100% durable leather with a 1.75″ / 4.45 cm French heel. (Read more about the history of the Sophie mules here!)


See the resemblance?

The Laundress, 1761, by Greuze

Latchet Shoes

Perhaps the most iconic shoe style of the eighteenth century is the buckle shoe. If you haven’t noticed, we LOVE a good buckle shoe! So here’s the lowdown. Shoes that fasten with buckles are technically “latchet” shoes. The latchets are the two overlapping flaps that the buckle is attached to.

But did you know that the earliest latchet shoes were not fastened with buckles? Instead, the tabs were fastened with ribbon ties through single eyelets. Like the c. 1700-1730 example below, which also features up-curved prow-shaped toes and a 3-inch Louis heel, said to have originated at the court of French King Louis XIV. 

c. 1700-1730, The National Trust

We based our popular Pompadour shoe design, first released in 2012, on 18th-century examples like the shoe above. However, there were definitely some changes made for comfort! Antique shoes of this style, while beautiful, would be difficult to walk in if the heels were dramatically sloped and/or located very far under the instep. In combination with higher heels, this could be a recipe for disaster. (And they were still made on “straights”!) When it came to designing our reproduction style, we wanted to replicate the period look without the peril.

Our leather Pompadour shoes are accurate for the 1680s through the 1760s and feature custom 2.5 inch / 6.35 cm Louis heels. Pompadours are available in black and ivory, in standard and wide widths


Now let’s talk about those buckle shoes! This is really our bread and butter at American Duchess. Although buckles are an ancient technology, they first started to be combined with latchet shoes among fashionable Europeans around the 1660s. By the eighteenth century, they were virtually ubiquitous: you will spot them on pretty much all of your favorite historical figures from monarchs to even your everyman and everywoman.

Allan Ramsay, King George III in coronation robes, c.1761-2.

At the moment, we have four different styles of 18th-century buckle shoes in stock: Kensington, Dunmore, Schuyler, and Primrose. While they are all compatible with our beautiful reproduction buckles (sold separately), each of these designs offers a different look and feel for the period, including different materials, colors, lasts, and heel heights.

Our beloved Kensington shoes were first released in 2012, and are available in standard and wide widths. Featuring our custom-made 1.75 inch / 4.4 cm French heels and hand-sewn pointed toes, Kensington 18th-century shoes offer all the sensibility of hard-wearing camp shoes, but can also be dressed up with glittery paste buckles.


The Schuyler shoes, released in 2019, are an even more practical, comfortable, hard-wearing option — especially if you’re not good with heels! They have a 0.75 in / 2 cm common sense heel, while still being accurate for c. 1750 – 1820.


Their design was based on some low-heeled 18th-century examples in museum collections, like these:

At last, we also have the lovely Dunmore! First released in 2015, this still was actually developed with input from Colonial Williamsburg. Like a number of surviving examples from c. 1770 – 1790s, we used colorful leather with twill tape edge binding to create this look. The toes are tapered with a soft toe box. The 2 inch / 5.08 cm Italian heels were crafted after an extant shoe, and the height is typical of the period.


Perhaps more distinctively, the vamps of the upper continue to a pointed tongue which you can spot in many period examples, like those below. (You can view more here!)

Shoe Icons Museum
Wedding shoes, c. 1770. Connecticut Historical Society.
1780-85, English. Bata Shoe Museum.

Does that last one look familiar? In 2023, American Duchess collaborated with The Bata Shoe Museum to release the delicious Primrose 18th-century shoes. This authentic floral-embroidered satin design was directly recreated from a surviving pair in the museum’s collection, capturing the look and feel of the original shoes from the 1770s-1790s. Every pair of Primroses sold benefits this important collection and supports Bata in their study, outreach, and conservation. And yes, they are made on the same last and heel as Dunmore, you can be sure that style doesn’t mean sacrificing comfort!


Although they are a departure from the iconic period styles above, we have even more styles suitable for the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, AKA the regency! We might need to write a separate blog about that …

In the meantime, you can peruse all of our vintage styles in the “18th Century” section of our website, both on AmericanDuchess.com and AmericanDuchess.eu.

4 Comments

  • Chrissie

    March 28, 2024 at 6:48 PM

    Will the Sophies in different colors return? I have worn my red pair as slippers around the house for several years and I have nearly worn out the lining and binding. The other mules in fabric are so beautiful but I am hard on shoes and fabric slippers wouldn’t last 6 months for me.

    Reply
  • Holly

    March 30, 2024 at 2:13 AM

    Thanks for this fascinating post! I note that you chose not to go with straight lasts for comfort’s sake, and having worn straight-lasted modern ballet shoes I can understand how R and L lasts are more comfy. But whenever I read historical shoe info, nobody ever talks about the way the toe box / sole area used to be designed flat against the ground or even sloping downwards into the ground. When and why did shoes start being designed with the front of the toe / sole sloping upwards? (Please forgive my dodgy use of shoe terminology!)

    Reply
    • American Duchess

      April 1, 2024 at 6:20 PM

      This is such an interesting question! The degree to which the toe curves upward in a shoe is called a ‘toe spring’. Variations in toe spring (or lack thereof) can be found all throughout the history of footwear for all sorts of reasons. For example, in the early 19th century, when super-flat shoes were in fashion, slippers often has no toe spring at all. This sort of super flat toe has what we call a “flat forepart”. These very flat slippers don’t follow the curves of the foot at all, and would feel pretty uncomfy on the modern foot. Later on in the 19th century, in the 1840s and 1850s, attempts to compensate for the flatness of heels (which made for a less comfortable walking experience) were made by shaping the sole more closely to the curves of the foot, with a bend at the toe and arch. By the 1870s, toe spring was often minimized in fashionable boots and shoes, and a high instep was emphasized, which can give that downward sloping look. By the next decade in the 1880s, more contact with the ball of the shoe and the ground was common, with a more moderate toe spring. Some styles of the 1880s and 1890s had a purposefully emphasized toe spring. Then in the early 20th century, flat foreparts became fashionable once again, and minimal toe springs remained fashionable for about a decade at least. So, it has varied a lot! If these sort of technical aspects of shoe history are interesting to you, consider checking out “Women’s Shoes in America 1795-1930” by Nancy Rexford.

      Reply

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