Concerning Historical Heels

Nearly 12 years ago (!), we published a blog post called “What Kind of Heel is That?  A Quick Guide to Historical Shoe Heels”. Well, with the passage of time and our ever-growing experiences in researching and reproducing historical heels, we figured it was high time for an update!

French Heel

Let’s start with one of the most “main character” heels out there…the French heel. Also called the ‘Louis heel’, French heels were one of the most popular heel shapes from the 17th century all the way through the 1920s. The most distinctive trademark of a French heel is a curved ‘waist’ and flared bottom. The breast of the heel (that is the front-facing side, under the arch) curves inward, creating a lovely and satisfying balance between curves on the neck of the heel (the back side) and the breast. On a French heel, the sole of the shoe will extend in one piece all the way down the breast of the heel, as opposed to a ‘knock-on’ heel, wherein the sole ends where the heel breast begins under the arch. French heels have historically come in a variety of heights and widths. Through the decades, there have been thicker French heels, slimmer French heels, taller French heels and shorter French heels. Lower French heels were sometimes called ‘junior’ or ‘baby’ heels in the early 20th century.

Pumps by L. Perchellet, French, c. 1895. From the collection at the Metropolitan Museum.

Silk shoes, British, c. 1710-1759. From the collection at the Metropolitan Museum.

An assortment of some of our many, many styles with French heels! From top top bottom: Antoinette, Mae, Foxtrot, Tango, Foxtrot (again), Colette, Camille, and Tavistock.

Opera Heel

The Opera heel, which was very popular in the late 19th century and early 20th, shares some similarities with French heels. Like French heels, Opera heels are curvaceous and have a slim waist. Unlike French heels, Opera heels are knock-on (the sole doesn’t extend down the breast), and the breast of the heel is straight. Opera heels could be found on boots and slippers alike. Evening shoes referred to as ‘opera slippers’ are likely the origin of the name ‘opera heel’. Kidney heels are a cousin of the opera heel; in the 19-teens, knock-on heels with curved necks, straight breasts and a higher overall height than opera heels were often called ‘kidney heels’.

Some historic opera heels on 19th century boots.

1880s wedding slippers with knock-on opera heels, from the collection at the Metropolitan Museum.

The opera heels on our lovely Renoir Boots!

Cuban Heel

A classic heel shape that really came into its own around the turn of the twentieth century, the Cuban heel can be recognized by its straighter sides. Cuban heels can be quite low and blocky, or they can be higher with a notable taper towards the bottom of the heel. Cuban heels can be stacked leather, wood, or other materials, and they can be covered in materials like leather, paint, or veneers. The Cuban heel became especially popular around 1930, and to the modern eye it has a distinct ‘vintage’ look. Cuban heels are another example of a knock-on heel, where the heel is crafted separately from the sole of the shoe and then attached.

Some extant shoes with Cuban heels from our collection…can you tell which American Duchess styles these originals influenced?

Paris, Marilyn, Claire, Lido, and Peggy all have Cuban heels!

Spanish Heel

The Spanish heel is another iconic ‘vintage’ heel shape. Spanish heels are thinner than Cuban heels, with a more dramatically curved and tapered shape. Spanish heels can have a neck that curves inward, or a neck with a straighter angle that tapers inward. Spanish heels are often higher than Cuban heels, and rather than knock-on, they usually have a sole that continues down the breast of the heel. Spanish heels emerged in the early 20th century and began to pick up steam as a fashionable style in the 1920s.

Stunning extant pumps from c. 1920s with Spanish heels, from the Shoe Icons museum.

Spanish heels on our new Jessica Pumps, modelled here by the eponymous Jessica Kellgren-Fozardfrom our collaboration collection, of course!

Lovely Spanish heels on our Lilith and Daisy shoes.

Italian Heel

The Italian heel is super recognizable for 18th century shoe fans. Popular in the later decades of the 18th century, the distinctive Italian heel features a curvy heel shape that is reminiscent of a very slender, narrow French heel, with curved sides that flare at the bottom. Italian heels feature a wedge-shaped extension that fills in the space under the arch of the shoe. This heel shape fell out of use in the early 19th century, so it’s pretty iconographic of 18th century shoes.

An assortment of 18th century Italian heels. Note the distinctive wedge!

Dunmore and Primrose feature our custom Italian heel.

Stiletto Heel

The 2010s are calling…and the 1950s. Named after the thin and narrow stiletto dagger, this heel shape has been very popular over the last few decades of contemporary fashion. In the 1950s, shoe designers like Roger Vivier and André Perugia popularized these high, thin heels in their sleek new designs. Stilettos feature a thin metal rod encased in another material, usually plastic. Stiletto heels are characteristically high, and famously tough to walk in on grass (haha).

1950s stilettos by Dal Co. and Perugia, from the collection at the Metropolitan Museum.

Common Sense Heel

If stilettos aren’t for you, common sense heels may be. The proof is in the pudding with this one. These low, broad heels are sturdy and comfortable, and make for good walking shoes and sports shoes. Common sense heels can be made from stacked leather, or covered in materials like leather or textiles.

Early-mid 19th c. common sense heeled shoes, from the collection at the V&A museum.
C. 1860 common sense heeled button boots, from the collection at the Metropolitan Museum.

Common sense heels on Claud Flats (1950s), Schuyler Pumps (late 18th c.), and Larkspur booties (1810-1930s).

Spring Heel

In the late 1790s, the French/Louis heel shape that was so popular through the 18th century began to lower. Lower and lower it went until it disappeared altogether and became the spring heel. Not entirely flat, but close, the spring heel is denoted by a single slip of leather inserted just above the sole, which seamlessly blends into the sole itself. As a result, the spring heel appears thickened at the heel but streamlined with the rest of the sole. This heel style was popular for daywear shoes and evening slippers until about the 1830s. The spring heel didn’t disappear when higher heels became fashionable again, however; they could still be found into the later years of the 19th century, even when they weren’t considered the peak of fashion (read our blog post that touches on that topic here.)

Spring heels represented in an 1897 Sears Roebuck & co. catalogue.

Black slippers, c. 1800-1824, from the collection at the V&A Museum.

Mid-19th c. slippers, from the collection at the Metropolitan Museum.

Spring heels on our Bronte Flats modelled by the terrific Alatheia @statusthimble.

Penelope Flats, Anne Boots, and Emma Booties all have spring heels.

Wedge Heel

One of these is not like the others…the wedge! While wedge heels in various iterations could be found in different fashion spaces throughout history and around the world (like ancient Greece and Renaissance Italy), they became a global fashion sensation after 1930, when Ferragamo got involved. Wedge heels often extend forward under the arch and sole of the shoe in one seamless line. Wedges have remained popular in contemporary fashion due to their versatility and comfortable fit. In fact, we recently wrote a dedicated blog post all about wedges, if they are of particular interest to you.

A selection of gorgeous vintage wedges.

Esme, our fabulous new 1930s striated wedge!

Here at American Duchess, all manner of historical heels are represented in our shoe styles. It’s an especially fun design endeavour to bring historical heels, like Italian heels and French heels, back to life. Do you have a favorite historical heel shape?

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