Shoe Styles of the 18th Century
Featuring Sara Woodyard, Senior Apprentice Milliner and Mantua-maker at Colonial Williamsburg
Women everywhere will instantly recognize the names Christian Louboutin, Manolo Blahnik, and Jimmy Choo; creators of impeccably designed women's shoes - some with lipstick-red soles. Would it surprise you that if Martha Washington was alive today, she would probably own several pairs made by these designers? The fashion blogosphere would buzz with reports of which heels she wore out on the town this past weekend – and similar shoes would fly off the shelves. Let’s go shoe shopping with Martha Washington and discover what kind of shoes a young, chic Virginian would have purchased in the 18th century.
Before Martha Washington married then-Colonel Washington, the dashing gentleman planter and rising young military star, she had been Martha Dandridge Custis, a bright-eyed and beguiling twenty-seven year old widow with a vast fortune. Before her wedding to the Colonel, Martha would have experienced a flurry of preparation to include writing a letter to request a most significant purchase – her wedding shoes.
Similar to watching what comes down the runway during Paris Fashion Week, wealthy women in the American British colonies looked to London to delineate the latest styles and sought the best craftsmen to make them, just like intentionally choosing well-known designers today.
Upper-class colonists like Martha Custis ordered footwear from London knowing that bespoke, or custom-made, shoes would be on-trend and of the highest quality. Only the wealthy could afford shoes made to their specifications and by doing so, women like Martha consciously aligned themselves with the tradition of the British gentry.
Bespoke shoemaking by top designers often continues today – red carpet darling Christian Louboutin styled a one-of-a-kind, character-specific pair of wedges for Angelina Jolie to sport at the premier of her film Maleficent in May 2014.
Sitting down at her writing table, Martha Custis would have penned a letter to a London agent who would handle the purchase of her wedding shoes for her; describing with great care the fabric, color, and size she desired.
The shoes she ordered might surprise you. If you’re thinking pilgrim-hip and made from the back end of some cantankerous cow – not quite. Martha Custis’s glittery wedding shoes were haute couture, equivalent to today’s most exclusive, stare-at-me stilettos. Crafted from lush purple silk and couched with sterling silver braid and spangles, these heels were show-stopping. And because they would only demurely peep from beneath a long silk petticoat, their secret seductive power was heightened.
Throughout their marriage, Washington regularly placed orders for Martha's shoes through a London agent. Shortly after they wed, George Washington ordered Martha “the most fashionable colored silk shoes” at her request. On another occasion he placed an order for “satin pumps embroidered with gold”.
Perhaps these glitzy heels, adorned with shimmering metallic threads, would have complemented a specific gown Martha had in her wardrobe. Or possibly, gold embroidered heels were the “it” shoe of 1764.
In her 20s, 30s, 40s, and beyond, Mrs. Washington was clearly concerned with the latest trends – and her societal position. In the 18th century, imported silks were the most exclusive and luxurious textiles. Sporting such finery was an open declaration of social rank and the buying power of one’s purse.
Surviving invoices tell us that Martha had these types of shoes in her closet:
|TYPE OF SHOE||DESCRIPTION|
|Slippers||A light, slip-on shoe with no fastening constructed of silk or thin leather, meant only for indoor wear at balls, parties, and other social events. Also called "mules".|
|Gloshes||An overshoe fastened to the foot to protect the main shoe. Also referred to as "galoshes".|
|Sandals||A kind of overshoe; more open than clogs or galoshes.|
|Pumps||A light shoe with a snug fit and no fastening; a low-heeled shoe.|
|Clogs||A leather open-toed overshoe or sandal worn to protect the feet from mud and dirt, usually with a wooden sole.|
The General, always fastidious with details, wanted to ensure that his overseas shoe purchases would be fulfilled to his expectations. In many of his instructions to his agent, Washington noted the specific size of his wife's shoes - the “smallest fives” or “large fours”. According to the calculations of modern experts, this means that five-feet-tall Martha Washington would have been a contemporary shoe size 7.
However, making sizing requests would sometimes be of little benefit. On a 1761 order for Martha’s shoes, Washington noted that “those sent last year were too narrow over the instep and rather too short”. In another instance he recommended that the shoemaker alter the fit to be “broader in the soles and not so straight over the toes as they were last year.”
And if there would be any question as to the size of his wife’s foot, the General sent one of Martha's cast-off shoes to the shoemaker in London to ensure that new shoes would “…be made by the shoe sent (having Martha Washington wrote therein) by Gresham at the Crown in Covent Garden who is desired to keep the shoe by him to save the trouble of sending a measure every year.”
As modern shoe shoppers know, sometimes a purchase just doesn't work out. On March 15, 1789, George Washington again wrote to his broker: “Mrs. Washington’s slippers and clogs have come safe to hand, the latter, however, are not as she wished to have… and will, by the first convenient opportunity, return the clogs to Mr. Palmer and get a pair of galoshes.” Thomas Palmer, a shoemaker whose shop was at 74 Chestnut Street in the main shopping district of Philadelphia,  probably re-sold Mrs. Washington’s returned custom pair to a middle-class shopper.
Martha Washington possessed an impressive shoe collection which would have been far above the norm in the founding era – in England or America. Records outlining her shoe purchases from 1759 to 1773 indicate that she bought approximately six pairs of shoes per year. In 1757, British political economist Joseph Massie calculated that “two pairs of shoes for each person upon average may well be taken for the median annual consumption of shoes.”
Just like today’s array of sandals, wedges, and wellies, in the 18th century different shoes suited different needs, both stylistically and practically. According to records of her purchases during her marriage, Martha Washington owned slippers, “gloshoes”, sandals, pumps, and clogs; evidence that she was an active, energetic woman who engaged in a variety of social and outdoor pursuits.
|TYPE OF FABRIC||DESCRIPTION|
|Satin||A very smooth and shiny material generally made from silk|
|Calimanco||A worsted (made from wool yarn) fabric with a light sheen|
|Calf||Soft, fine grain leather|
|Silk||An expensive cloth woven from threads sourced from silkworms|
|Everlasting||Sturdy, closely woven fabric, usually in black; often used for ladies' shoes|
|Stuff||General term for worsted (made from wool yarn) fabrics, or any shoe with a fabric upper|
|Chamois leather||Porous leather known for its softness|
|Velvet||Fabric with a pile; made of silk, wool, or cotton fibers|
|Morocco leather||A soft, pliable leather usually made from goat skin and dyed in a variety of bright colors to imitate leather from Morocco; often used for ladies' shoes|
What kind of fashionable shoes do you think Martha Washington would wear today? Use #MarthaShoes and join the conversation on Twitter and Instagram!Tweet Now
As the talk of independence from England rose to a fever pitch, women of all social strata in colonial America began to feel compelled to patronize local trade shops. With patriotic fervor came a call to action, and in the 1760s non-importation agreements blocked English trade in the colonies. As a result, American shoe production skyrocketed. After the war, these shoemakers began to develop a luxury market that directly competed with England.
Extant invoices of Martha Washington’s shoe purchases from London cease after 1773. Invoices resume in 1784, describing Martha’s shoe purchases from American tradesmen in Philadelphia, signaling the dramatic shift from the colonial mercantile system to the birth of a new nation.
After the United States won its independence from England in 1783, Martha continued to purchase shoes from American shoemakers and merchants, a sign of the new nation’s growing economy. Certainly, to many fashion-forward American women like Martha, being able to purchase stylish shoes in one’s own country would have indeed been “the pursuit of happiness.”
- Cynthia E. Chin
Learn more about the stylish, charming, and capable Martha Custis Washington.Our Style Maven
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 Washington, George. Invoice of Sundry Goods to be Sent by Robert Cary Esqr. and Company for the Use of George Washington, 10/12/1761. The Writings of George Washington, Colonial Series, 7:77, 78).
 Washington, George. Invoice of Sundry Goods to be sent by Robert Cary Esqr. and Company for the use of George Washington. Abbot, the Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, 7:164, 165).
 Washington, George. Letter to John Didsbury, 8/10/1764. The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series. 7:321.
 Washington, George. Letter to John Didsbury, 7/20/1797. The Papers of George Washington, 2:464.
 Washington, George. Letter to Clement Biddle, 1/20/1789. The Papers of George Washington, 30:182.
 Abbot, The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, 9:65
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Brady, Patricia. Martha Washington: An American Life. New York: Viking, 2005. Print.
Garsault, François A. De and D. A. Saguto. M. De Garsault's 1767 Art of the Shoemaker: An Annotated Translation. Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2009. Print.
Haulman, Kate. The Politics of Fashion in Eighteenth-century America. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 2011. Print.
Montgomery, Florence M. Textiles in America: 1650-1870: A Dictionary Based on Original Documents, Prints and Paintings, Commercial Records, American Merchants' Papers, Shopkeepers' Advertisements, and Pattern Books with Original Swatches of Cloth. New York: W.W. Norton, 1984. Print.
Riello, Giorgio. A Foot in the Past: Consumers, Producers and Footwear in the Long Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Pasold Research Fund/Oxford UP, 2006. Print.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Bata Shoe Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Elizabeth Todd and The Shoe Hive in Alexandria, Virginia, and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and their experts Linda Baumgarten, Al Saguto, and Sarah Woodyard. Header Image Credit: (c) The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Used with permission.