Steely Seamstress

Sewing for life


Bath Fashion Museum 2021: Shoephoria

Last year I didn’t make it to the fashion museum. I’m not even sure that they had a new exhibition. But with a day off and some time to myself, I jumped on the train to Bath for a day of museum mooching. This year’s exhibition is called Shoephoria and as the name suggests is all about shoes. Do check it out if you get a chance.

The curators have taken two approaches to the exhibit. First, shoes have been included in the permanent exhibition of 100 objects which traces fashion through the centuries. Then, there is a second exhibition totally dedicated to the shoes which are grouped in themes such as Walking, Dancing, Sport and so on. They have also done of fantastic job of including plenty of interesting local details in the exhibition.

Do you remember the TV series Sex and the City? Of course you do! And Carrie’s favourite brand of shoe? Manolo Blahnik, of course! I never knew that Manolo Blahnik is a Bath resident and many of the shoes in this exhibition are from his private collection.

Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City
Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City off shopping again for her beloved Manolo Blahniks

Manolo is particularly influenced by the fashions of the eighteenth century: “I definitely belong to the eighteenth century…The eighteenth century is the most feminine and remarkably elegant period in history. Even men had heels!” This is definitely something that I can see here with this collection of high-heeled shoes in brocade fabrics and adorned with buckles, beads and embroidery.

Manolo Blahnik shoes
Manolo Blahnik shoes – Eighteenth century influences

There are also a number of shoes which are exhibited with the original design drawings.

Manolo Blahnik boots
Black lace up boots, Manolo Blahnik: Design and boot

Must admit these striking boots caught my attention:

Manolo Blahnik boots
Manolo Blahnik boots

In the museum the first rooms feature A History of Fashion. The oldest shoes in the museum are the red velvet slippers on the left from around 1690. The petticoat pictured behind the shoes is from the same time period and is embroidered with crewel embroidery. The petticoat would have been visible at the front of the dress.

The fabric for the dress and pair of shoes below was woven around 1740. As is the case with many period dresses made of expensive fabrics, the dress was remodelled in a later style in the late 1700s. I’m impressed that the shoes still survive along with the dress, but perhaps they weren’t worn with the dress once it was remodelled.

Matching dress and shoes (1740s)

These are pattens. They consist of a wooden sole raised on an iron ring. The wearer would have worn their normal shoes and strapped the pattens on top, so that they were lifted several centimetres above the ground, protecting their shoes and hems. In Persuasion, Jane Austen writes

“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…these were noises which belonged to the winter pleasures”

Pattens commonly worn by working ladies in Regency England, but sometimes, as Jane Austen put it “even by gentlewomen” in the winter season.

These boots date from the early nineteenth century. At this time breeches have given way to trousers and so men mostly wore shoes. But of course, going riding still called for boots.

Riding boots from the 1830s
Riding boots from the 1830s

These boots, from the 1840s have elasticated sides. They were a very popular design at the time, as they didn’t have fiddly buttons or laces. The use of elastic was the invention of Joseph Sparkes Hall of Regent Street, London in 1837. He presented his prototype to Queen Victoria who was apparently delighted with the design.

Elastic sided boots

The Shoephoria exhibition itself starts with a Wearer’s walkway. Each photo is a record of a local person and their life during the lockdown winter of 2021, such as Anthea below.

Wearer's walkway
“I bought this pair of Toffein clogs at the very beginning of the pandemic an they’re still going. As an ITU nurse I spend nearly 40 hours a week wearing the,. which involves endless walking and running around the hospital while delivering care to patients, and they never disappoint!”

In the Walk section, these Roman sandals feature with the other sandals. They were found in an archaeological excavation in the city.

Roman sandals (43-410 AD)
Roman sandals (43-410 AD), soles from Roman shoes, three for adults and one for a child.

Among all the walking shoes, there are these purple blades. They belong to Harmonie-Rose from Bath, who lost her arms and legs to meningitis as a baby. She has had lots of prosthetic limbs and these were her first blades. Apparently she loves walking on blades.

Harmonie-Rose blades
Harmonie-Rose’s first blades

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, flat shoes such as these lace-ups were becoming popular. They were ideal for Regency ladies going for a country walk.

Women’s lace-ups from the 1800s

Another part of the exhibition shows shoes for parties and celebrations. These party shoes are both from the early twentieth century. The ones on the left were worn for a presentation. This is where debutantes were presented to the sovereign in a ceremony to mark their entry into society.

Left: Shoes for a debutante’s presentation (1912) Right: Embroidered mules for dancing in the Assembly Rooms in Bath

These tiny slippers were made in China as wedding slippers and were for a bride with bound feet. The red silk has phoenix designs embroidered on them.

Next, there are all the different types of shoes for sport. Here, we can see the evolution of the football boot. In the top left-hand corner is a pair of boots from 1947 in sturdy brown leather. They were hardly worn as they were outgrown quickly.

Football boots 1940s to today

And for roller-skating….

Disco Roller Skates, 1970s

The dance shoes below were worn by Ginger Rogers in the musical Mame at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, London.

Ginger Rogers Shoes
Top: black leather court shoes worn by Ginger Rogers. Bottom: Dance shoes worn by Ginger Rogers

Then returning back to the every day, the slippers on the left were made at a Make Do and Mend class run by the Womens’ Institute in the 1940s. They have a crochet sole and rabbit fur lining. It’s hard to believe that the brown Oxford shoes in the middle of this photo were bought in 1933. They were polished and repaired impeccably by their owner.

From the left: Rabbit-fur lined slippers (1940s), Brown Oxford shoes (Moykopf, London 1933) Brown lace-up walking shoes (1920) with mending tag from Fortnum and Mason.

The final entry, as usual, in the museum is the “Dress of the Year”. For 2019 it is this pink confection by Giambattista Valli. The trend was further popularised by the the pink tulle dress worn by Villanelle in Killing Eve.

Dress of the Year
Dress of the Year 2019

This outfit represents fashion in 2020. According to Professor Webb, the fashion writer conversations surrounding fashion weren’t just changing, “the entire landscape had shifted.”. This outfit is created from khaki-coloured scrubs, and features a Black Lives Matter slogan; definitely marking a moment in time.

Dress of the Year 2020

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Who wears the trousers?

I was pondering yesterday my sewing strategy for the next few months. The fact is that I haven’t got one. I’ve just been drawn to various projects either because I like the pattern or fabric or because I feel that the techniques I’ll use in the project are ones that I can do. I have tried to challenge myself incrementally; I don’t want to try to run before I can walk.

I have come to the conclusion that I do need a strategy though. There is no point making clothes that I don’t think I’ll wear and I need to replace old favourites with similar items. This was brought home to me at the weekend especially when I found a hole in my black jeans. Sadly they aren’t repairable as the fabric is rather too thin. And of course, a couple of weeks ago I cut up my green corduroy trousers to create a pattern to copy them, but I haven’t got any further with that project. Two pairs of trousers down and I’ve replaced them with nothing. I practically live in trousers so I’m already noticing that the two remaining pairs of jeans are constantly going through the wash. Perhaps I just need to wear more skirts. I have made attempts to do just this. But to be realistic in the last month I have worn a dress to work once and a skirt once and this is excessive non-trouser wearing for me!

I do come from a line of trouser-wearing women though. My mum seems to scarcely wear a skirt, much like me, and has always been like that. Likewise my grandmother (my Mum’s mum) was the same. In fact, I never remember her wearing anything else. She made all her own clothes. I have wondered whether she always dressed like that. For those growing up in the early part of the last century that would not have been the case, so the trouser-wearing must have been a conscious decision.

This sparked an interest in the history of trousers as women’s clothing and I set out to find out a little about when trousers exactly became socially acceptable and commonplace. In the early part of the twentieth century, trousers were worn hardly at all by women. Early examples of women wearing trousers include famous frontierswoman Calamity Jane and aviator, Amelia Earhart. These women wore trousers as a practical necessity.

Amelia Earhart

Screen legends of the 1930s such as Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich were frequent trouser-wearers. Katharine was well-known for her unconventional attitude and strong personality. When the costume department at RKO film studio stole her slacks (because they found slacks to be uncouth and boyish), Hepburn walked around the studio in her underwear, refusing to put her clothes on until she got her pants back! I just love the photo of Katharine below. She looks so elegant, sophisticated and yet alluring! But this is Hollywood and not real life!

Katharine Hepburn in Trousers

In the same period, trousers as pyjamas and sportswear became acceptable. The photo below shows women in a bowls match in 1935.

Playing Bowls

During the second world war things changed radically. Women took on many jobs previously carried out by men and wore overalls or trousers as a practical item of clothing for their work. I found this sewing pattern from the early war years for a pair of overalls.

1940 overalls

By the end of the war, trousers were starting to establish themselves as more accepted day-wear and patterns for trouser suits were published.

Trouser suit 1942

Immediately after the war, ultra-feminine fashions dominated in the fifties. These were characterised by full-skirted skirts and dresses. Trousers still made an appearance with high-waisted Capri trousers proving popular. Since the sixties, trousers have been worn quite commonly. Although even now, they are still shunned in favour skirts and dresses by many women for certain formal occasions. I admit even I would feel out of place in trousers at a wedding, unless I was calling the shots as the bride…….

Bride in trousers