Shoes can be expressive. They reflect the wearer’s personality. Shoes can be special. They are purchased for important occasions such as the first day of school or a wedding. Shoes can be status symbols. Both past and present designer brands remain exclusive. Shoes can be works of art. They are designed and created. Shoes can be magical. They are central to stories such as 'The Wizard of Oz' and 'Cinderella'. Shoes can be good luck charms. Concealed in the fabric of buildings, they were thought to offer protection from evil spirits.
Early Shoes: 1250-1799
The earliest surviving King’s Lynn shoes date back to about 1250. Archaeologists excavating in King’s Lynn in the 1960s found well preserved remains of leather shoes almost everywhere they dug. They found over 400 shoe soles, a number of boot and shoe uppers, together with many leather scraps from cobbling (shoe mending). The leather used has been identified as coming from either goat skin or cow hide. All the boots and shoes found in the town were made using the turn shoe technique where the shoe is made inside out and then turned to produce water-tight seams.
Builders sometimes find worn out shoes hidden in a building. They were often concealed near the entrance point to the house such as a chimney, window or doorway. This practice was thought to bring good luck and protect the home from evil spirits. The shoes are always heavily worn. Very often there is only one shoe, and many of the shoes are children’s. The earliest shoes used in this way date back to about 1500. No one knows how this practice began. These finds are important survivals because they show the everyday shoes worn by householders. Northampton Museum keeps a record of the concealed shoes such as the one on show here and knows of over 1900 examples from around the UK.
As well as discoveries of everyday shoes by archaeologists and builders, other early survivals may be prized, delicate and special shoes kept and handed down through the generations as heirlooms. Such shoes may have been made from silk and coloured kid leather or embroidered brocade They were only worn occasionally, more carefully kept, and admired for their craftsmanship over the years.
Victorian Lynn: 1800s
Before the mass production of shoes, towns like King’s Lynn had their own craftsmen who made and mended boots and shoes. 'White’s Norfolk Directory' of 1845 lists 67 boot and shoe makers trading in King’s Lynn supplying the needs of its 20,000 townspeople. By 1896 there were still 38 boot and shoe makers working in the town. But by then, centres such as Norwich and Northampton were producing shoes in factories using industrial processes.
Pair of boots made from leather. (1900)Lynn Museum
Pair of baby's shoes made from leather. (1860)Lynn Museum
Single men's military boot made from leather with studded sole. (1910)Lynn Museum
Walking Jewellery: 1920s
During the Roaring Twenties women’s fashion altered dramatically. Dresses and skirts got shorter. As hemlines rose women’s shoes became a fashion focal point. The most popular style of footwear was the bar shoe. It had a simple design with a heel, single strap and button to fasten.
Shoes were made from satin, brightly coloured leathers and exotic skins. They were decorated with beads, sequins and rhinestones.
Design inspiration came from a variety of sources including the Art Deco movement and Asia. In 1922, archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun and a craze called ‘Egyptomania’ swept the country. Developments in machinery during World War One meant that shoes were now being mass produced. Men’s fashion changed very little. The most popular style of footwear was the brogue, a laced shoe made in many sections.
In the 1930s women’s fashions became simpler. Slingback sandals were popular. During this period the look of the High Street changed. Department stores such as Marks and Spencer and Burtons the Tailor opened shops in King’s Lynn. Local, well established, independent retailers continued to trade.
The most fashionable shoes for men were in two tone colours: black and white, brown and white, and beige and brown.
Footwear During the War Years: 1940s
When war was declared in 1939 many King’s Lynn men signed up to fight. Women of the town assumed new, important roles such as working in factories and in agriculture. The Woman’s Land Army (WLA) provided extra agricultural labour during World War Two.
On the Home Front clothing was practical. People were encouraged to ‘Make Do and Mend’ - modifying the clothing that they already had. In 1941 rationing was introduced. Ration cards were issued at King’s Lynn Town Hall. Coupons were exchanged for food, clothing and shoes. Initially the allowance was 66 clothing coupons per person per year. Rationing tables published in the newspaper showed the number of coupons needed for certain items. Shoe polish wasn’t available so people were encouraged to use a cut potato to shine their shoes. Shoe factories produced military footwear on a massive scale. Leather went to manufacturers producing footwear for the armed forces.
Resourceful fashion designers used crocodile, snake and even fish-skin as an alternative to calf leather. Clothing rationing continued until 1949.
Fun and Fashion: 1950s
During the 1950s young people had more disposable income resulting in a development of youth fashion.
These thick crepe-sole shoes are commonly known as creepers. Local cobblers began to refine the creeper to include larger soles. This style of shoe is often associated with the ‘Teddy Boy’ look, which consisted of a drape jacket with collar, cuff, and pocket trimmings worn with narrow ‘drainpipe’ trousers.
Shoes A-Go-Go: 1960s
Designers introduced new styles of shoes during the 'Swinging 60s' marketed at young people, such as the Go-Go boots. Singer Nancy Sinatra brought more attention to the Go-Go boot when she released her single 'These Boots are Made for Walkin', which reached No.1 in the UK Singles Chart in 1966. Go-Go boots may have been named after Go-Go dancing in nightclubs.
High heel shoes, such as those displayed here, became a popular shoe style for men in the late 1960s. These shoes were worn by Mr Blundell on his wedding day in 1968.
A Platform for Shoes: 1970s
In the early 1970s popular fashion and lifestyle magazine Vogue, declared “there are no rules in the fashion game now.” Disco music inspired many fashions of the late 1970s. John Travolta wore platform shoes in the 1977 film, 'Saturday Night Fever'. Platform shoes have thick soles and thick high heels. They were worn by both men and women. Some platform shoes were four inches (ten cm) high. Cobblers were sometimes asked to hollow out the soles to make the shoes lighter.
The modern animal rights movement began in the early 1970s. Due to increasing protest, fake animal skin clothing gained popularity. The decade saw a rise in synthetic material being used to make clothing, including the use of fake fur. These shoes are made from fake snakeskin. They were sold by Stead and Simpson, a national shoe manufacturing company. There was a store on New Conduit Street, King’s Lynn, until 2012.
High Tech and the High Street: Modern Day
Specialist sport shoe manufacturers are now using cutting-edge technology to enhance the user’s performance. These new developments are changing what a shoe is, and what a shoe can do for its wearer. Altra, a running shoe specialist company has introduced smart technology into their running shoes. Sensors located in the sole of the shoe relay information instantly to a runner’s mobile phone. The runner can find out how many steps they are taking per minute, how long their feet are on the ground for on each step, and exactly which parts of the foot are landing on the floor. Adidas are also using new technology in shoes. 3D printers create bespoke shoes for the individual. Nike have designed the Hyper Adapt shoe that is self-lacing. This technology can be used to assist those who are physically unable to tie their shoes giving them greater independence.
With thanks to:
National Lottery Heritage Fund
Arts Council England
Norfolk County Council
Borough Council of King's Lynn and West Norfolk
Norfolk Museums Service
Ruth Battersby-Tooke - Curator of Costume and Textiles
Oliver Bone - Curator
Dayna Woolbright - Assistant Curator
Melissa Hawker - Learning Officer
Imogen Clarke - Curatorial Teaching Museum Trainee
Sam Bellotti - Curatorial Teaching Museum Trainee
Monika Saganowska - Coastal Treasures Trainee
Andrew Tullett - Coastal Treasures Trainee
Mitchell Hudson - British Museum Trainee
In this exhibition we display shoes worn by all genders in the past. Our interpretation reflects the perceived gender norms of the time periods.