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The 300 Years of Shoes collection - research & making - 1720 - Decorative Display of Embroidery


Decorative Displays of Embroidery – 1720

Collection: 300 years of Shoes

Garment: The lost left shoe of a Georgian woman

Materials: cartridge paper, quilling paper strips, embroidery thread, tissue paper, card, aqua bronze powder, lacquer

This shoe is inspired by the long, elegant appearance of shoes in the 1720s; a shape that allowed space for ornate decoration in silver lace, beadwork or embroidery. Also by the many ways that the Indian Blue Peacock has been portrayed in art and fashion.

The heel of this shoe is inspired by the ‘Louis’ heel worn by England’s elite from the 1660’s and by the splendour of the peacock even whilst it is sweeping the ground with its closed tail.

Preliminary sketch of Decorative Displays of Embroidery


If i was going to make a series of shoes based on birds i was going to have to look to the peacock at some point. I believe this stunning bird surely warrants his place first in line. So my 1720's shoe had to be a peacock and whilst tail up the bird is really all the wrong shape tail down he is perfect.

This is the shape of a shoe from the period.

Peacocks of course feature in centuries of art

The Annunciation with Saint Emidius by Carlo Crivelli 1485 (National Gallery)

In fact if there's a bird that's been more frequently reflected in the visual and decorative arts then I don't know what it is. Taking on the Peacock and attempting to interpret it in a new way is therefore...daunting. For more images of shoes of this style, my favourite from history (though I can't quite imagine walking in them without severe discomfort) please see:

Lang Shining (Giuseppe Castiglione, 1688-1766), Qing dynasty

1733 – 1795 Maruyama Masataka

I think we've arguably become over used to visual images of the Peacock in full (show-off) splendour, with it's tail fanned up and out. As an attempt at a sightly more understated sophistification, and arguably to better reflect the shape of the shoe I decided my peacock would have its tail feathers folded, draped behind it like fabric.

Blue Peacock by Pieter Pietersz-Barbiers - 1759-1842

Peacock by Tani Buncho (attb.) (1763-1841). Edo period, 19th C. Japanese hanging scroll painting

1872 Daniel Giraud Elliot Pavomuticus the Green Peafowl

During my research Radio 4 broadcast a programme hosted by the interior designer Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen about the extent to which peacocks have been portrayed on every type of surface that it's possibly to imagine decorating, including of course garments. It was he who introduced me to the 'Peacock Skirt' an Art Nouveau image illustrated in 1893 by Aubrey Beardsley

Shoes at the start of the 1700's

quoted from - Furnishing the Foot: Shoes 1700-1760

"Shoes in the early years of the eighteenth century, for both men and women, were designed to complement the luxurious fashions of the period, adding a final flourish and touch of opulence to an outfit. For men, shoes formed a prominent and highly visible feature of their attire, punctuating the end of an elegantly stockinged leg. For women, a tantalising glimpse of a fine shoe might appear beneath a flowing gown when the wearer sat down, walked or danced.

High heels were common for both sexes, as was the use of sumptuous fabrics. Shoes typically included a high rising vamp (upper front part of the shoe) with ribbon-ties, which helped to shape the foot, giving it a long elegant appearance, as well as providing a space for decorative displays of silver lace, beadwork or embroidery. The use of such exquisite and expensive materials made the shoes of the wealthiest more than just functional items, instead they became aesthetic objects of desire and outward symbols of the wearer’s refined tastes and high social status.

The exuberance which characterised shoes of this period owed much to the fashions which had been laid down in the previous century. Shoes were made using traditional techniques including the use of straight lasts, which meant soles were identical, with no left or right. Whilst the squared toe characteristic of the late seventeenth century evolved into a point toe by 1710, the red ‘Louis’ heel, inspired by the court of Louis XIV of France and worn by England’s elite from the 1660s, was a trend which endured until the mid-1770s..." Between 1720-1740 "...the splendour of the new Hanoverian court was complemented by the exuberant tastes of Britain’s elite in their pursuit of the perfect shoe. Whilst leather was used for boots and outdoor shoes, for the wealthiest only expensive fabrics like brocades, silks, linens, satins and damasks would suffice. Sometimes fabrics would be chosen to match a specific item of clothing, however this practice was not standard until the end of the century. Rather, fabrics for shoes were chosen to emphasise the wealth, status and exquisite tastes of the wearer. French brocade was considered the most exotic and desirable fabric at this time, but by the 1740s English fabrics, made in Spitalfields, east London, were starting to compete in design and quality.

Trimmings were often equally lavish, including richly embroidered or woven patterns and expensive silver-gilt lace. These extravagant materials were increasingly accompanied by buckles instead of ribbon-tie fastenings, providing another opportunity for wearers to showcase their fashionable tastes and wealth. The most ornate buckles, purchased from jewellers, were made of gold, encrusted with precious and semi-precious gemstones. Such extravagance suggests that for the wealthiest, shoes were as much a fashion accessory as a means of protecting the foot.

Whilst lavish amounts of money were spent on shoes, reflecting the nation’s increasing mercantile and commercial fortunes, style and design also underwent an evolution. Between the 1720s and 1740s heels gradually lowered and widened, whilst toes became more pointed and upturned, helping to create a dramatic silhouette for the foot. The shape and location of the latchet fastening also changed, now forming a more distinct feature by fastening lower on the front of the shoe and intersecting the vamp in a more pronounced manner."

With all of this in mind I got started...

Some working pictures - showing the different stages of development as I tried out different styles for the peacock's head etc

I began with the idea that my peacock would have a flat head, in the end I made many tiny beads from coils of quilled paper and threaded them together.

Here then is my interpretation of a shoe from 1720, titled Decorative Displays of Embroidery

Photo of final shoe by Ray Sullivan


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