Weird History
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Here's What 'Trendy' Shoes Looked Like In Every Decade Of The 20th Century

Updated January 28, 2021 16.1k views10 items

Shoe: a simple four-letter word with so many meanings, purposes, and categories.

Throughout history, shoes of various kinds have been worn to protect feet, provide comfort, demonstrate affluence, and complement a contemporaneous fashion trend. The history of fashion and the history of shoes may bring to mind common brands like Adidas, Manolo Blahnik, and Birkenstock, all of which produce very different manifestations of the same thing - shoes. 

The history of shoes is laden with context, geographical considerations, and cultural factors - all of which can be seen in what kinds of shoes were worn throughout the 20th century. Just like fashion history from the 1900s, shoe history reveals a lot about what individuals and groups valued, took part in, and found aesthetically appealing.

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  • 1900: The Edwardian Boot And Satin Slippers

    1900: The Edwardian Boot And Satin Slippers
    Photo: Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis / Wikimedia Commons / No Known Restrictions

    During the late 19th century, boots were worn by men and women across social classes. Boots for both were made out of leather, although women's boots often featured ornate patterns, buckles, ribbons, and straps. Around the turn of the century, Edwardian boots echoed these same styles, incorporating numerous buttons as well

    Because leather tanners were able to produce various colors and finishes around 1900, women's shoes became an art from of sorts. That said, boots worn by women during the first decade of the 1900s remained relatively obscured by long dresses. Heel size and level of ornamentation was dictated by utility and occasion, whether it was for work or a social activity.

    Just like boots, satin slippers carried over into the early 20th century as well. Worn in the evenings and at home alike, satin slippers could be mules or feature straps

  • 1910: Tango Shoes And Boots For All Occasions

    Shoes for dancing, namely tango shoes, were considered modern - if not a bit outrageous - when they became popular during the early 1900s. Tango shoes featured low- to middle-height heels with straps or ribbons across the front.

    With hourglass-shaped "Louis" heels, tango shoes offered additional stability at the base. Louis heels were incredibly popular during the early 20th century, featured on boots and shoes of various styles. Shoe manufacturers even commented, "There is not a prettier, more dainty shoe made than the boot or oxford having a 10-8 or 2-inch Louis heel." 

    Boots with Louis heels accompanied sportier boots intended for riding, laced canvas boots worn while playing croquet or lawn tennis, and button boots comparable to those worn during previous decades. Shoes also began to have rubber soles, something that became common during World War I. 

  • 1920: T-Straps And Nubuck Whites

    During the 1920s, as women shortened their hair and their dresses alike, new shoe styles entered the fray. Designers found innovative ways to decorate boots and heels, with straps and pointed toes becoming the norm. The proliferation of dancing pushed the T-bar style forward, although other types of cross-foot straps remained popular. Shoe materials included satin and brocade, with adornments in gold, rhinestones, or brass. 

    Athletic shoes, produced en masse by the end of the 1910s, continued to be worn - usually by men but not exclusively - incorporating rubber, leather, and canvas materials. During daily activities, men wore oxfords (characterized by closed lacing), increasingly preferable to boots. Oxfords ranged in colors, including black, brown, and white. One type of oxford, the Nubuck white, was especially popular, billed the perfect "summer footwear." 

  • 1930: Wingtips, Heeled Oxfords, And Bluchers

    1930: Wingtips, Heeled Oxfords, And Bluchers
    Photo: Sobebunny / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Brogues, initially worn as leather outdoor shoes, took on numerous styles and features during the early 1900s, one of which was the wingtip. Wingtips, traditionally, have pointed toes and caps that extend down the side of the foot - like wings. With low heels, wingtips were preferable to boots and became the shoe of choice for working professionals during the 1930s. Wingtips could be monochromatic or multicolored, blending different types of leather. 

    Two other types of shoes worn by men during the 1930s, oxfords and bluchers featured different lacing styles and tongues. Unlike the closed lacing system of an oxford, now featuring higher heels, bluchers had open lacing and featured a vamp made out of a solitary piece of leather. 

    Footwear for women during the 1930s was characteristic of the 1920s, with T-strap styles being common. Heels remained the norm, with heights determined by utility. Women also wore oxfords, sometimes with buckles instead of laces.