A couple weeks ago Casey, of Elegant Musings fame, wrote a piece about where to find vintage, or vintage reproduction, shoes. After reading the article, I was going to post a comment, but it quickly turned into a paragraph. I decided to wait to comment and to think about it a little more, deciding in the end to write this post instead of clogging up her comments section with my thoughts. What follows is my comment-turned-blog-post consisting of my personal thoughts about finding somewhat period correct shoes to match your vintage outfits.
I’ll start by saying that some people have a skewed view of what “vintage” shoes look like. With the surge in women dressing in a mid-century pin-up style, the line between what vintage really looks like and what a modern idea of sexy is has become very blurred. Authentic 1940’s shoes do not look like they just spent a night on stage at the Pink Squirrel Lounge. If you care about authenticity, you can’t slap a bow onto some stripper heels and call it vintage. Now, if you don’t care about being realistic, then by all means… wear whatever shoes you want. If you DO care, there are companies out there that produce faithful reproductions of vintage styles, you don’t have to settle for someone else’s rather loose interpretation.
In my personal experience, I’ve found that one of the best and most overlooked places to find vintage looking shoes is at estate sales. I’m not really sure if I’m the only one who has noticed it or not, but “old lady shoes” look a WHOLE lot like shoes from the 1940’s. For example, both pairs above are from my personal closet. The pair on the left is a 1980’s pair of shoes from the estate sale of an elderly woman. The pair on the right are authentic 1940’s and were purchased at a thrift store. I’ve probably come across 45 pairs like the tan wedges in my thrifting days, but only one pair like the green. In the same manner as those above, the two pairs below are very similar but were made over half a century apart. The pair on the left is from my own closet and were probably made after the year 2000; as where the gold pair on the right is from the archives of the Met Museum and were made in 1942. While not exact replicas, both of these newer pairs of shoes are close enough in appearance to their antique counterparts to “pass” for vintage when putting an outfit together. The most important thing is to get your SHAPE right, you can modify everything else if need be, as long as you have the right “frame” to start with. If you aren’t looking for anything too fancy, there are old standbys that have changed very little over the decades: slip on deck shoes, penny loafers, white Keds, saddle shoes and, of course, espadrilles!
It is important to familiarize yourself with REAL vintage shoes before you set out hunting. I recommend browsing the Met Museum’s archives, searching for period images that feature shoes and old fashion magazines are a great source for shoe pictures as well. I’ve compiled a pretty good collection of images of period shoes on my multiple shoe boards on Pinterest; if you have some free time to browse, they are worth a look. Once you are completely familiar with the shapes and details that you are looking for, it won’t take you any time at all to spot them in the “wild”. I put together a little collage below of shoes shown in photos of Rita Hayworth to illustrate my point about “old lady shoes”. Notice that many of them bear a strong resemblance to something you might have seen shuffling around a retirement home.
One of the biggest mistakes that I see with “vintage repro” shoes is that the heels are too thin and tall and that they don’t have enough coverage. The very high, thin heels with strappy, “barely there” fronts didn’t become popular until the 1950’s. It’s really fairly easy to find 1950’s and early 60’s style shoes. Authentic examples are still pretty common in thrift stores and I see them online a lot. The basic shapes of that time period continued to be produced into the 80’s, making them still plentiful and fairly cheap today. These two authentic 50’s sets below were purchased from thrift stores for under $3 a pair and are part of my personal collection.
If you are looking for something even older than the 40’s, I would suggest that you don’t wear anything produced prior to the mid 30’s. They seem to be so rare and fragile that I’m not sure that the majority of pieces would last more than a day or so. I’ve read where other experts don’t even suggest wearing anything predating WWII because of their value, I’m not that strict with it, but you don’t want a beautiful pair of shoes to fall apart on you; so be wise in choosing which ones are fit to wear and which ones are better off left on the shelf to be looked at. I have two pairs in my own stash from the 30’s that are very stable and can be worn, but as I said, I wouldn’t suggest it for most examples. The brown pair below are from the late 30’s to early 40’s and the black booties are from the 30’s. Both of these were found at thrift stores a couple of years ago, so don’t lose hope, they are out there! It is easy to spot real vintage booties; most pairs of low-ankle booties that are produced now have stiletto heels, which the originals DO NOT have. Another dead give away of an old shoe is the soles, look for leather and nails.
The twenties are actually more easily reproduced than you would think. While authentic examples are almost non-existent outside of museums, the basic shape was heavily copied in the late 1980’s and throughout the 1990’s. This shoe below is from the 1920’s and is part of the Met Museum’s collections. In the 20’s and early 30’s there were basically two variations of this, the plain ankle strap (below) and the T-strap. I love a nice t-strap myself. The 20’s saw more variety in decoration than in shapes really. You can find this shape of shoes, made in the 90’s, just about anywhere. All you need are some rhinestones, maybe some fabric paint or a curved needle and you could jazz them up to be pure jazz age with very little effort.
The Edwardian period saw the skirts rise enough to get a peek at the shoes and, therefore, they became a bit more attractive across the board. As with the 20’s shoes, you can find a very simple pair of booties produced in the 90’s just about anywhere, and with a little effort, they can be decorated to be more representative of the period. The green suede booties below came from a thrift store and are my own shoes; the white pair is from 1914 and belongs to the Met. Buckles were the common closure of Edwardian shoes, but I think that in most cases you could get by with a laced version. One important thing to look for is the relatively low and flared heel style, another is a squared off toe which, from my research, seemed to be the norm at this point and had not been rounded off as of yet.
Of course, we all know the Victorian button boot and that there have been many companies over the years who have made them. Costuming warehouses make “real” versions that will set you back a couple hundred dollars, or you can buy a fashion repro when you can find them. They become popular in cycles it seems, they were popular when Victoriana made a resurgence during my high school years and now they are popular again with the rise of “steampunk”. I WORE OUT my cream colored pair from my school days, but I found this nice leather pair at a thrift store for about $5. The buttons are real, although they are not the method of closure; they zip on the inside ankles; it is very well hidden when the boots are on and they look very realistic. They also have leather soles and leather wrapped heels which add to the realism. You shouldn’t have too hard of a time finding a reproduction pair made in the last 30 years that are in decent shape for under $50.
If you are creeped out by wearing someone else’s old shoes, there are some companies that make new versions of old styles, as I mentioned at the beginning. Below I’ve chosen a few pairs to share, starting with Re-Mix vintage shoes, this is by far my favorite company and they make seemingly true replica’s of historic shoes. While they aren’t cheap exactly, their prices aren’t so high that they are completely unattainable either. Buying one of their repro pairs is going to be far less expensive than buying most original pairs. In my Etsy shop I sell things cheaply because I acquire them cheaply and I want to be able to sleep at night, but for the most part, many sellers are shilling shoes from the 40’s for $200 and up regardless of what sort of condition they are in. Re-Mix’s shoes are a safer bet if you are new to the hunt because you get an identical look and you know they are in NEW condition. Miz Mooz, Miss L. Fire, Seychelles & Chie Mihara complete the selections. On the other hand, if you don’t mind used, by all means go forth into the thrifty world and harvest! To me, part of the fun is the hunt itself, not just having the shoes. I also enjoy taking a very plain pair from 20 years ago and altering them to be a fabulous replica from days passed. After writing this post, I decided that I should finally go ahead and part with some of my vintage shoes that aren’t perfect fits for me. It was hard to do, but there is no reason for me to keep shoes that I likely will never wear. They belong where they can be worn and shown off, so I listed several pairs in my
Etsy shop, even a couple of the pairs featured here in this post. If you’d like to check them out, feel free to head over and browse.