Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Monday, April 7, 2008

The Fabulous Life of History's Shoes and Purses

When digging into historical costumes, things that are most discussed is usually the clothes and any head-dress the wearer presented themselves in. However less likely discussed are shoes and purses, and I mean for women and men alike. I doubt the Earl of Northumberland carried a wallet in his back pocket, or that he wore tennis shoes. Same goes for his lady. She probably didn’t grab her Coach bag on the way out of the house, with her feet clickety clacking in her Juicy Couture pumps.

So today I wanted to go a little further into detail. However fascinating foot binding was in China, today I’m going to simply discuss Europe from the middle ages through the Regency era. (I do however promise to discuss foot binding at a later date!)

Shoes
The middles ages certainly had a wide range of shoes. We’ve all heard of the soft leather boots or slippers, but what’s more fun are the extraordinary.

First we have the shoes with the abnormally pointed toe called the Pouline. Who thought of that? Was the pointed toe for when you gave someone a swift kick in the head? Or was it for men to say, “Hey, my shoe tip is bigger than yours.” Or for women, “Well you know they say the size of a man’s foot determines the size of his…” Perhaps the pointed tip was somehow to exaggerate where they were lacking. Vulgar young men would paint the tips of their shoes a flesh color and wiggle them at innocent maidens. How little things have changed…lol…

There was some talk within the Roman Catholic Church that the shoes represented a phallic symbol and they were completely inappropriate to wear. They even blamed the Black Plague as God’s revenge for wearing Poulines. But the people ignored the warning and continued to break out the pointed toe off and on to this day.

These pointed shoes do tend to come back into style, I owned two pairs of pointed toe heels a couple of years ago. One of which was almost comical…

Most shoes were made of soft leather, fabrics like velvets, silks and brocades, and if you could afford it were lined with fur to keep your feet warm. Because of the price of shoes, most peasants went barefoot during the summer months.

There was also the very odd Bear’s Claw shoes (aka Duck’s Bill or Scarpines), …what? Who thinks of these things! (shakes head, and wishes to see it in person) Anyways, these shoes were heavily padded, puffed out at the tips, lots of showy embroidery and slashed at the tops to show the hose you wore underneath… These shoes became so huge at one point they were noted to be 12 inches wide! The wearer would waddle around…sexy…

So you may be wondering how people walked in muddy streets, or through grass…well clogs and another type of shoe called Pattens which vaguely resemble platform flip flops, were developed. They had a wooden bottom or thick leather bottom with leather straps. The wearer would slip these contraptions on over there fabulous shoes (rolls eyes, and again wishes to see someone actually wear these and think they are fashionable).

By the late 1400’s the German’s figured out how to make shoes inside out on a last, a type of mold. It was also at this time that heavier soles began being attached to the shoes. These simple turn shoes were inexpensive and great for people who couldn’t afford the more fashionable expensive alternatives.

Queen Mary passed a law outlawing the great width of the shoes. Shoes became slimmer and a T-strap was added to shoes. During her sister, Queen Elizabeth’s reign, mules and high heeled slippers became stylish for court ladies. Their shoes would be decorated with fur trims and jewels.

Somewhere along the way fashions reversed for men and women. In the 17th century it was very popular for men to wear heels and for women to wear flat slippers. Both sexes wore square tips. The men’s shoes would have deep cuffs and high tongues decorated with stiff bows (large or thin), spurs or buckles. Women’s shoes might be trimmed with rosettes, ribbons, or embroidery.

During the 18th century women began wearing heels again and men started to wear the thigh length boots (some still with heels) and flat shoes again made from leather. During the Victorian era, (I know I said only to Regency but I had to add this!) the ankle boot became popular for women to ward off any stares from men at their oh-so-sensual ankles.

It should be noted that the majority of people wore straight lasted shoes (remember the last is a mold). Some were able to get “waisted” shoes, which were shoes that were cinched at the arch of the foot. However it wasn’t until the 1800’s in America that shoe lasts were made for left and right feet.

Pouches, Purses, Pockets, Reticules
I love purses just as I know most women do. I like to have purses of different colors for my different outfits, purses for different occasions, purses for different seasons. So would this have been a fetish I’d have to give up if I’d lived in the past? Well I probably wouldn’t have had quite the variety that I have today that’s for sure, but I could have had some pretty ones!

In medieval times, both men and women wore girdle pouches. These pouches were attached to the girdle they wore at their waist. Not the kind of girdle people wear now to suck in their bellies, these were like belts.

Pouches often showed your status in society. Some were embroidered, adorned with jewels, fur-lined or could be simply made from wool or leather. Obviously the more elaborate your pouch, the more money you had. It also appears from artwork that men’s daggers or swords were slipped through a slit at the tops of the pouches and then out the other end.

Some purses would be filled with sweet smelling herbs for people carry around either to ward off their own stench, or that of others.

During the 16th century purses became more practical, and had a drawstring to close it. For those of us who may have been traveling back then, you might have a larger cloth bag that you wore diagonally across the body. They don’t sound nearly as fun as those in previous years or of the purses in the 17th century, which became smaller, and of different shapes of embroidered fabrics. In the 18th century purses became less widely used because men and women had pockets.

Pockets? Okay, big deal right? Not so for women, these weren’t like your jeans pockets. These were actually bags attached to a belt like strap that hung around the waist under their dresses. Slits were in the fabric and they could reach through into their pockets to get what they needed. Men also had pockets,

Muffs were also used, which were purses made of fur.

The Regency was probably more my style! The women’s bags were called reticules or indispensables (because you couldn’t leave home without it!). They hung from the wrist and because fashion was so important during this time, and how you looked, most ladies had a different reticule for each outfit. What would a proper lady carry in her reticule? Her makeup (rouge, face powder, perfume), a fan, visiting cards with her card case should she receive a card from a friend, and just in case she or one of her friends had a sudden fainting spell, smelling salts.

I for one always carry my smelling salts...just kidding. But I do keep makeup, my cell phone, pen, paper, tissues, wallet, eye drops and keys. What about you?

8 comments:

Delilah Marvelle said...

Fabulous post, as always! Shoes have come such a long way. As have "reticules." The first time I ever got a chance to see shoes from the 1800's was in London. I was shocked as to how tiny most feet were back then!! Much tinier than my 7 1/5 foot, that's for sure... And I loved how some would merely strip the material off the shoe and sew on a new one to match their garbs of the day.

Eliza Knight said...

Thank you Delilah! Wasn't it crazy? I've heard that people weren't as tall back then either. Having to strip the shoes must have made quite a bit of work for those maids!

Nita Wick said...

zI carry just about EVERTHING in my purse. LOL My son was duly impressed the other day when I was driving him to his girlfriend's house. (He's almost 16, btw.) Anyway, he said, "Oh, man. I forgot to brush my teeth." Mom to the rescue! My purse held a tin of dental floss and mint chewing gum. :)

Great blog, Eliza, as usual. :)

Pat McDermott said...

Always such an education to scroll through your blogs, Eliza. And fun, too! This one makes you see Cinderalla and her glass slippers in a whole different light!

Kris Kennedy said...

Hey Eliza,
Keep meaning to pop over to your blog and leave a comment, and keep forgetting! Finally made it.
Great, informative and playful blog!
When I imagine my heroines carrying their 'purses', or even the keys to the castle, on their belts/girdles, I always see the belt tugging down, slipping, down, down. Not in a sexy way, in a "this-darn-thing!' way. :-)
What I want to know is, how do you keep publishing such content-rich blogs and also write while having two small children in the house??
~Kris

Eliza Knight said...

Nita, carrying floss is a great idea! I should add that in there.

Pat you are so right! The glass slipper you see on Disney always looks so modern. Have you seen Ever After? The Cinderella movie with Drew Barrymore, they weren't glass slippers but they were much more period looking.

lol Kris! I picture the same thing! In paintings it always looks as though the items on the girdle are weightless, you know it was weighed down! As far as your question goes...I have no idea! I don't sleep much, and my hubby works late so I get a lot of time to myself. I've also been blessed with kids who go to be at 7:30pm, which probably helps a lot! Plus all of the stuff I blog about are questions I have for my own writing so I'm killing 2 birds with one stone :) I hate that saying, but you know what I mean. That is actually where I got the idea to do the blog, I thought there had to be more people than just me wondering about this stuff. So I'm hoping people can come here and learn what they are searching for on many topics without having to google everything or hang in the library all day.

Thanks so much for all the fabulous comments! I'm so glad everyone likes the blog!

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Fascinating post Eliza. I remember seeing the shoes that the courtesans wore in Venice and marveling that they could walk around without breaking their necks!

Eliza Knight said...

Thanks Elizabeth!

I saw a picture of those as well, and it was pretty crazy, some of them could be twelve inches tall! Did you know originally that they weren't only worn by courtesans? But once courtesans started to wear them, women of fashion and society stopped.