The Regency Wardrobe collection - research - labels and names in shoes

It was in the National Trust collection at Killerton House, Devon that I was first impressed by the beautiful makers labels to be found in some surviving examples of eighteenth and nineteenth century shoes. Ornate, regal even, their wording carefully chosen, they go into much more detail than do any labels found in our shoes today. They are more akin to miniature advertising billboards, many claim royal assent and can be dated according to which Prince, or Duchess, or Queen they praise. Some are decorated with arabesque flourishes, olive branches or heraldic coats of arms. All the decoration included surrounds the particular shoe and/or boot maker's name and address.


But it was also at Killerton that I first saw a hand-written name inside a shoe and became enamoured by this practise; which I have since established as something of a practise, for it seems this was not an isolated example. The personalisation, the hand writing, the name, the act of leaving ones mark, of claiming one's personal ownership, one's presence stated in this way, casts the hint of a ghost, a snippet of a story onto what is otherwise canvas, leather silk, thread and ribbon. In this way a single individual from history, a woman, has stated that she stood here, on this earth. In many other ways she may have suffered from and/or might have fallen into obscurity since death, yet while she lived she walked, and these sewn together items once connected the soles of her feet to the ground that we walk upon today.

This then was the first pair I saw with both statements of ownership, linked to different points in the time line of the life of a single pair of shoes. These are dated c.1840ish:

And this particular pair of shoes is in fact even more special in that they inform us now, nearly 200 years after their manufacture, of three brief periods of ownership. For M.L.Fox would bequeath them to Eleanor Johns and, it seems, wanted there to be no doubt about this wish; presumably a last wish.

Today we can find shoes available for sale in second hand shops but the idea of bequeathing your shoes, specifically, and not only of writing that wish down but of writing it on the item itself seems to me a touchingly intimate gesture. If it was something regularly done by our ancestors then it's a practise I wish we'd kept up, not for the result that all sorts of people might have ended up with shoes they didn't like from a distant great aunt but for the layers of personal script. Like left behind substrata of thoughtfulness these carefully penned names hint at identities interlinked. They suggest that Ms. L.Fox valued both these shoes and Eleanor. There is an ephemeral collage of personality here layered on canvas and whilst holding these shoes in my hands I knew I was holding leather that had lain between the ground and the feet of people who were made suddenly very real to me. Shakespeare asked "What's in a name?" In this instance lost lives are in these names and life lost stands in these shoes.

Meaghan M.Reddick describes the practical side of such a practise in her thesis 'AN AMERICAN IDENTITY: SHOEMAKER'S LABELS IN COLONIAL.REVOLUTIONARY AND FEDERAL AMERICA, 1760-1820' which I will quote several times in this post. She states:

"Often women’s shoes were remade multiple times, either for reasons of thriftiness, to remain fashionable, or to fit an entirely different owner. The majority of women’s eighteenth-century shoes found in museum collections were remade in some way. Wedding shoes...because of their sentimental associations...were often worn by multiple generations of women".


But this one pair shows a forth layer of labelling as well; and thereby yet another aspect of history and in this case also of international commerce.

Concerning a particular, later, flat soled pair of wedding shoes in their collection on the V&A's website can be read:

"These shoes were made in Paris by a shoemaker called Chapelle. They would have been imported for sale in shops across Europe. This style of shoe, without left or right foot shaping, is called 'straights'. To assist the wearer, there are two small paper labels inside reading 'Gauche' (French for left) and 'Droite' (right)."


Straights at first were undifferentiated but Reddick explains:

"The French shoemaker’s guilds required producers to mark their products to distinguish one atelier from another. This was considered a positive effect of the restraints set by the guild, as all products needed to be marked with a distinct label. The French shoemakers were highly competitive with Britain..." and two of the ways that France sought to develop a competitive edge were by developing first the idea of designating one left and one right inside a pair of straights and by the makers label as a "...method of branding...The inside of each shoe would be marked gauche or droite to distinguish the left or right shoe." Both ideas became popular marketing tools in Britain and America as well. "...The concept of ‘griffe’ [the label becoming a way of marking ones brand as the superior brand] was..." widespread by the mid 1830s.


It was also during the 1830's that this written distinction between a left and a right shoe began to have an impact on production, as shoes began to be produced with two different lasts, instead of being 'straight.'

For more on griffe and all things eighteenth century shoe related a particularly in depth study is The Boot and Shoe Trades in London and Parisin the Long Eighteenth Century by Giorgio Riello :

In fact I was very surrprised when I started looking for more information about both eigthteenth and nineteenth century shoe labels and the practise of writing one's own name in ones shoes. I expected to find books devoted to this subject full of high quality photographs because I think these labels are beautiful. Certainly I anticipated that many fashion historians at least would have become as enamoured as I. I was very grateful therefore when I found Reddick's thesis, not least because she too notes this lack of other research in this area:

"...I found that little information was available about early labels. The printed paper examples used in shoes were derived from the printed trade cards and shop receipts that documented a particular maker’s products. Of all clothing items, labels for shoes and flat brimmed hats were the first to be used. My initial research concluded that more analysis needed to be done...Why had costume historians and other decorative arts scholars dismissed these paper labels as nothing more than an advertisement? The majority of scholars in the field just glazed over them...."


It seems to be generally agreed that:

“Designer Charles Frederick Worth (1825-1895) [was] ... the first designer...with his signature in his creations. Early in the twentieth century, designers such as Poirot, Chanel, Lanvin and Vionnet used their labels as a means of branding their garments and protecting their designs, and the use of the label as a brand marker has continued ever since. Some labels are also used to define authenticity, with elements like number sequences or holograms offering the buyer assurance that the item is not a counterfeit copy. Labels can also serve to fill regulatory requirements in terms of defining textile content, size, care requirements, and origin…Labels or marks of ownership come in different forms, and occasionally, one might find the name of the owner embroidered or handwritten in a garment.”

- p55 The Dress Detective by Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim

That is the concensus by those who study fashion in general with the focus on clothes but branding, and using a makers label specifically, became an attribute of the shoe makers art in the century before Worth. Here is a beautiful example from the Killerton House collection of a shoe dated 1795:

I found this pair from 1760 on this brilliant blog:

"An elegant pair of brocaded silk buckle shoes, with leather sole and carved wood heel, were London-made by John Hose & Son, c. 1760 and likely worn by an American bride. Hose shoes were incredibly popular in British-America...They are housed in the collection of the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum (DAR Museum). These shoes are believed to be the wedding shoes of Elizabeth Lord. She was born in 1735 in Lyme, CT, and married at the age of 25 in 1760 to Jared Eliot in nearby Killingworth, CT. Note the excellent pattern matching at the toes which is evident in a number of surviving Hose shoes, such as this pair in the collection of Historic New England. Similar in design aesthetic, the HNE brocaded silk buckle shoes feature a two-inch French heel, oval toe and bright polychrome florals, London, c. 1770. The owner is currently unknown." - (link above)

And yet it seems Britain was playing catch up with Paris even then:

"The real or apparent difference between left and right provided an important competitive advantage for French shoes especially in the upper market. A second important innovation introduced in the British market from France was the 'branding' of shoes. Before 1815 only few British producers were able to achieve notoriety for their high quality products. A very early example of label can be found in a shoe preserved at the Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto). It was produced in the mid-eighteenth century by William Cooper, a shoemakerin Chancery Lane. Most producers, however, were more or less anonymous.In contrast, French shoes were not an undifferentiated category. Most of them were products of a particular 'atelier' The use of labels on the instep of the left shoe highlighted a particular producer and his individuality...Regulations in the Compagnie de Cordonniers in the eighteenth century imposed that every producer had to mark his own products with a distinctive label. This rule - conceived to avoid the commercialisation of products by unregulated producers - had a positive effectin creating a modern notion of branding..."


From having visited the Fashion Museum of Bath, Chertsey Museum, the V&A and Killerton House I have been able to compile a fair collection of images of shoe labels and, whenever possible, have sought examples of hand-written names during my research. Though Riello and Reddick have proved my main sources of historical information I have come across some other online or hard copy text about this area and links are included below. Mostly I just enjoy looking at these beautiful early forms of advertising and reading up or dreaming about those who penned their name in their shoe for whatever original reason, meaning that I walk, imaginatively, for a moment in their actual shoes.