Shoes on Loan for New Georgian Exhibition

A sneak preview – the shoes packed for transport to Bath

A sneak preview – the shoes packed for transport to Bath

Recently, five shoes from the collections travelled to Bath for installation in the new exhibition at No. 1 Royal Crescent, Portrait of a Lady? Ruin and reputation in the Georgian Era.

Of the five, three had been in storage for many years. The shoes were selected by the team at Bath to complement the display of mezzotints of Georgian women and their commentary on social status in Britain in the late eighteenth century. Women’s social standing could be remarkably fluid and still very much constrained during that period: actresses became gentlemen’s mistresses and enjoyed luxurious but precarious privileges; many women became their own mistresses and ran businesses of various kinds. Morality was subject to vigorous criticism via the printed media of the day.

Some of these contemporary criticisms use shoes to signify the tensions in women’s social status: In Richardson’s Pamela (1740), the master’s breach of social propriety and first advance on the maid’s ‘virtue’ is signalled by his gift to her of (and comment on) ‘fine silk shoes’ and stockings which had belonged to her late mistress. Daniel Defoe, lamenting in 1725 that ‘it is a hard matter to know the mistress from the maid by their dress; nay, very often the maid shall be the finer of the two’, writes that ‘[the maid’s] neat’s leathern shoes are now transformed into laced ones with high heels’. Leather, during the early Georgian period, was the material of workwear: drab and robust.

A sneak preview – the shoes packed for transport to Bath

A sneak preview – the shoes packed for transport to Bath

The vast majority of shoes in the collection from this period have uppers of silks; the finer shoes were preserved more carefully. Two of the loaned shoes illustrate this contrast: a single brown leather working woman’s shoe of c. 1750 and a single black embroidered silk shoe of c. 1765. They are similarly shaped, with medium height heels, straight-topped tongues and latchets for buckles, but utterly different in the value displayed in their materials.

Later in the century, leather attained the same desirability for fine footwear as silk. Dyed in bright pastel blues and pinks, hand painted with flowers or printed with exotic patterns and trimmed with ribbons and rosettes, leather, like silk before it, had crossed the social divide.

Until the 1780s, shoes were fastened with buckles fixing latchets overlapping at the instep. They became increasingly extravagant, peaking with the ‘enormous’ Artois buckles of 1777. Shortly afterwards, the decreasing heel height was met with lower cut throat with no tongue and no latchets to fasten. These ‘slippers’, still made from silk or softer leathers, were much closer in style to the modern court shoe. The black silk slip-on shoe with ribbon rose (one of a pair, c. 1785), like others with no fastening and no narrowing or ‘clip’ at the back of the foot to hold the shoe on, has a textile heel grip stitched into the lining.

Frederica, Duchess of York, had the ultimate celebrity foot, supposedly just 5 ½” long. Numerous satirical cartoons show women attempting to match the Duchess’s daintiness by cramming their feet into pinching slippers. One by James Gillray underlines the perennial link between footwear and sex, showing the supine Duchess’s tiny foot ‘yielding’ to the Duke’s large one. A treasure normally on display at the Shoe Museum and now included in the exhibition at No. 1 Royal Crescent is a shoe reputedly worn by the Duchess at her wedding (she had two) in 1791. It has an upper of ivory sprigged silk and is decorated with a silver fringe, beads, silver ribbon and spangles. It has a very narrow pointed toe, and the upper material is reinforced along the sole edge inside where the foot overlapped the sole. At 8” long, it is somewhat larger than the Duchess’ reputation suggested – which is perhaps entirely appropriate to the exhibition’s theme!

The exhibition will run until 14th December 2014.

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