The 1920s –the Jazz Age! A time of flappers, fun, and freedom and a celebration for women as they experienced new-found liberation and independence. Ladies were cutting their hair and showing their legs, whilst donning exciting flapper shoes to show off and catch the eye.

The most ground-breaking thing about women’s shoes in the 1920s was that you were actually able to see them! The longer dresses of the decades before kept feet firmly under-wraps and women spent more time focusing on pretty underwear (a fashion secret only the wearer would know about) but by the 1920s as hemlines rose, women’s shoe confidence soared and footwear took centre stage.

Shoes were designed to be seen and admired and for the first time designers thought about the footwear as well as apparel.

With metallic leathers and fabric, fancy T straps rhinestones and lacquered heels, 1920s shoes were the epitome of flirty footwear for evening, while dapper oxfords, two-tone spectators, and Mary-Janes made for smart daytime looks.

This new generation of women were known as ‘flappers’ and they challenged the traditional female roles, not only in the ways they were expected to behave at home and in society but also very explicitly in the ways they dressed. (The term ‘flapper’ was originally used to describe baby birds attempting to leave the confines of the nest – perhaps in reference to the 1920s woman’s determination to leave behind the strictness of the prim and proper Victorian/Edwardian societies which proceeded them)

Picture One: Examples of the jewelled heels used on 1920s shoes

The formal ideals of the late 1800s  – social ideals of plain living, hard work and religion were discarded and people, especially young women, enjoyed this newfound freedom and embraced individuality and personal choice.

In the 1920s, the term flapper, although not derogatory referred to women who chose to reject the norms of the Victorian era and their appearance defiantly heralded a new social order – a freedom in behavior and appearance which suggested questionable morals – something far, far removed from the strict rules and de-sexualisation of the Victorian woman.

The 1920s women had won the vote, they danced, drove cars, smoked and their clothes, although loose and body skimming was eye-catching and luxurious – design to attract rather than repel!

This new found ‘personal choice’ in behavior and beliefs clearly extended to their fashion ideals and a new demand for outfits and shoes for different occasions – and roles. Shoes were chosen not only to match a specific clothing style but also for the season too; and the 1920s woman, regardless of her class, went mad for shoes!

She demanded designers create indoor shoes, outdoor walking shoes, dancing shoes, sporting shoes and even swimming shoes!

This demand for shoes, in new styles, every season made custom fit ordering a thing of the past and ready made, standard sizes became popular. A well dressed, fashionable lady in the 1920s no longer had to wait weeks for a last and fit shoe to be prepared – she could pick up ready to buy shoes in a range of styles and for a range of purposes from her local clothing store or mail order catalogue. The excessive demand for shoes meant that dressmakers often became shoe-designers or even makers too and the mass production of affordable, yet fashionable, shoes for women on all social scales begun.

By 1924 the most popular style of women’s shoe in Britain was the bar shoe, a simple design that involved a strap across the instep, fastened with a single button. Various versions existed and included styles for daywear, sportswear and eveningwear. The Strap Pump or as it is best known today, the Mary Jane, were commonly designed with double straps, often crossed or with simple, straight shapes. The most iconic, however, was the Sally Pump T-strap or T-bar (British) with a strap coming from the toe to the vamp creating a “T”. All straps were thin and got thinner as the decade progressed. Cutouts in the straps and eventually in the shoe body gave them an even more delicate feel and a ribbon was even used, looped through eyelets on the side and tied in a bow at the centre – pretty, decadent and alluring these shoes were a far cry from the sturdy, practical lace ups and boots of the Victorian/Edwardian era.

Picture One: 1920s flapper girl

Picture Two: Women’s gold and green leather bar shoes made by the Cooperative Wholesale Society 1922-23. This colour combination shows the influence of the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922

High-heeled shoes also came into vogue in the 1920s. The heels were two to three inches high and usually the shapely Louis heel in style (this developed into a more slender version known as the Spanish heel by 1931)

1920s shoes were pointed in the early years (following the Edwardian shoe trend) then rounded out in the mid twenties and almost square in the late end of the period. Outdoor shoes of the time were mostly made of leather from calfskin, lizard, alligator or goat. Muted tones of shiny patent leather were equally popular for day and evening. Sports shoes were made of sturdy gabardine or canvas cloth and indoor shoes were pretty satin, grosgrain, brocade or lambskin – never before had their been such a range and variety of styles and Britain’s factories were delighted to answer this new fashionable demand!

The 1920s influence on shoes today:

The dainty styles of the 1920s flapper girl is still very current – with world renowned fashion houses regularly making reference to the decadence and freedom of the era (Chanel’s 2010 cruise collection was a stunning nod to the 1920s flapper) and the T-bar shoe is still an easy find on the high street.

The influence of the 1920s on fashion was dynamic and its ethos of freethinking, fun and frivolity is as popular today as it was then. The shoe styles have survived (see styles from BFA members International Dance Shoes  as ultimately they make a woman’s foot look as good today as they did upon their arrival on the fashion scene in the 1920s.

As Coco Chanel stated in 1929: “A woman with good shoes is never ugly!” and although today’s modern woman would never be constrained by such ideals of beauty, the joy of fabulous footwear remains.

Picture One & Two: BFA members International Dance Shoes still creating 1920s styles today.

Coming soon 1930s

Article written in collaboration with Northampton Museums.