“Yes, I know exactly what you will say: Friday, went to the Lower Rooms; wore my sprigged muslin robe with blue trimmings — plain black shoes — appeared to much advantage; but was strangely harassed by a queer, half-witted man, who would make me dance with him, and distressed me by his nonsense.”
Jane Austen mentions shoes more often than purses in her work and as any woman knows, the shoes make the outfit! It may come as a surprise to many readers to discover that shoes worn during the Regency did not differ much from what is worn today. Previously, both men and women wore what are now know as Court Shoes—high heeled pumps made of leather or brocade fastened with a large buckle. These elaborate shoes were in keeping with the highly stiffened and embroidered fashions of the day. As dress styles changed, however, shoes did as well.
In the year 1800, any sensible young lady of fashion would have had at least three pair of shoes—one for everyday wear, slippers for dancing in and boots for walking. This is a minimum, of course– Empress Josephine of France owned 520 pairs of shoes!
Jessamyn Reeves-Brown, a Regency fashion enthusiast, has done careful research in this area. A glimpse of her page on shoes reveals a fascinating walk through fashion history, outlining the decline of the pointed toes and heels of the early Regency and a progression towards a more ballet slipper style of shoe. Ribbon rosettes and satin ties that criss-crossed up the leg added feminine charm to shoes that were otherwise much simpler than their earlier counterparts. As in previous years, shoes were made with no difference between left and right shoes. It would be up to the owner to wear them in comfortably.
Black was a common color, but by no means standard. Pastel pink, lavender, blue and yellow also made an appearance in colored leather and satin. Stripes were also popular for a time.
According to Jessamyn, “wedding gowns were often worn to the point of being worn out. After the wedding, brides had to cherish something else. Often this was one of her wedding shoes, a natural choice given the lucky connotations of shoes in this context. Many carefully preserved satin slippers remain with notes inscribed in the instep attesting to the wearer’s wedding.”
Around 1810, half boots, ankle length boots made of cotton or kid leather, became popular as walking shoes. One can easily imagine Elizabeth Bennet donning a pair for a tramp across the fields, or Emma Woodhouse stooping to break her lace in order to contrive a reason to visit Mr. Elton’s parsonage.
Unfortunately, all such delicate fashion comes at a price and shoes of the Regency were no exception. Notoriously thin and prone to scuffs, tears and soaking in even the slightest weather; they needed constant protection and replacement. One Georgian innovation that was slow to be replaced was the patten. These lifts, as it were, fastened to one’s shoes and kept the wearer out of the snow, mud or puddles. By this time they were most often worn by servants and lower classes and made of wood or metal. They did create a racket when walked in, but to Jane Austen, it was one of the sounds of Bath.
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When Lady Russell not long afterwards, was entering Bath on a wet afternoon,
and driving through the long course of streets from the Old Bridge to Camden Place, amidst the dash of other carriages, the heavy rumble of carts and drays, the bawling of newspapermen, muffin-men and milkmen,
and the ceaseless clink of pattens, she made no complaint.
Laura Boyle is a fan of all things Austen. She runs Austentation: Regency Accessories, creating custom made hats, bonnets, reticules and more for customers around the globe.