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Northampton Museum & Art Gallery - 300 Years of Shoes - Silk Shoes Visit I

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

Shoes, shoes, shoes! Northampton Museum has many. In fact it has the largest collection of historic shoes in the country.

Thousands of brown shoe boxes sit on moveable shelves in storage for people like me to look through. It's an amazing resource.

I've made my first 6 hour visit during which I took over 700 photographs but I only managed to pick a few off each shelf and I only made it a third of the way through the shelves, reaching just the late 1930's-40's.

Working with Northampton Museum is part of a long term project. I hope to show the 30 final shoes that will form 300 Year of Shoes the collection here in 2029 (when I've made them all).

In the mean time I am just beginning to plan and develop a linked collection provisionally titled Weaving Silk Stories. For this I will partner also with Whitchurch Silk Mill, Hampshire (and other partners tbc). The result is to be a collection inspired by the history of silk manufacture in the UK and alongside the mannequins will be 5 shoes, inspired by silk shoes. The whole collection will be shown in 2025/'26 with these next five coming here to Northampton; they will also become the next 5 in 300 Years of shoes meaning that each will also each be inspired by and reflect a different bird.

As I know therefore that I will be visiting the Northampton Museum shoe store again I began by concentrating on looking specifically at some of their silk shoes which I have documented below. This of course makes the time period I got through during this visit particularly relevant.

I did also look at shoes that had any sort of decorative links to birds and I'll document these shoes separately. I did also look at some leather shoes and will continue to do so but I will also document those separately.

All the images you can see here are credited to Northampton Museum & Art Gallery

In date order, I began before the 1720-2020 time period I'm reflecting in 300 Years of Shoes, with a woman's blue damask latchet-tie bullion lace shoe dated circa1675-1699. And from the image of this shoe you can probably immediately begin to understand the sense you get when handling historic silk shoes. The sense, that is, that you are breathing in, or spreading around, the very shoes you are holding. For each and every historic silk shoe is turning slowly to dust, the silk disintegrating even as they are stored.

I've measured every shoe I've picked up because the size differential across the decades is interesting. It's not something I've reflected yet, in the first five shoes from 300 Years of Shoes which you can see by clicking at any time on this title. But I will begin now to do so.

The lace effect, metallic as it is, is obviously heavily tarnished.

It is true of historic garments but should be noted all the more so when thinking about pushing a needle through the tough edges of shoes, that the tiny hand-made stitches are impressive!

I am beginning with women's shoes and will return to what I found of men's shoes but I also want to note here how many of the shoes I looked at, especially these very early shoes of course, are lonely. 300 Years of Shoes is formed around the idea of making a single lost left shoe from every decade in that period. There is something Cinderella about the notion but more surely I imagined when I began how hard it would be for both of every pair not only to survive but to stay together across time. And this is born out here.

With an estimated date of 1700-1724 this single pale blue shoe with silver lace would have been half of what must have been a stunning pair.

There is silver lace even on the heel.

The effects of age are equally visible on the underside of the sole, perhaps from water damage whilst being worn.

a 3 inch heel!

Today we just call it velvet (and there is likely no silk in the velvet that most of us use and come across today) but in reference material it is sometimes referred to as silk velvet, which was traditionally part of the silk family. To understand more about silk velvet I'd recommend checking out one or other of these two sites.

So I've included this velvet shoe because given it's date (circa 1720) this black velvet buckle shoe with needlepoint toe and silver braid is likely made of silk velvet.

We can only imagine the beautiful metal buckle that must have once upon a time joined the two sides together (today they would be stuck down with velcro presumably, what a shame!)

What a solidly constructed sole!

Whilst wear can be witnessed inside again the most immediately apparent effect of time is that of the fabric becoming dust, from the point of the toe up.

And here, on this pale blue silk buckle shoe dated circa 1720-1740 we can fully witness the ravages of time on the upper and to the sole

In some of the boxes are tiny plastic bags containing the shoe as it is becoming dust.

A pair of pink silk shoes circa 1740

Finally a pair of shoes and whilst it's interesting to note that the silk is pulling away from the sole it is also...

...interesting, I think, to see that in this case at least it is the weft thread that has become dusty, leaving the original warp thread behind.

And inside the construction of this shoe is particularly visible.

1759 cream buckle wedding shoe with metal embroidery

I think this one is lovely

1760-1770 white satin latchet shoe with applique braid decoration

This shoe is one of the types of shoes I had in mind before I visited and was therefore hopeful to find.

I have images of a rook that I can see combining with this shape, style and colour.

1770-1779 women's black silk buckle shoe

But this shoe was also the first I found with a hidden, personalised attribute that immediately made it one of my favourites for it has hand-writing on the sole, put there presumably by their original owner Mary Hall. I have found a record of the marriage between a Mary Hall and to William Carr in June 1744 on however the date given is the 9th not the 11th? Chasing historical fact is rarely straightforward.

I find it interesting to compare two shoes from different decades to see style changes over time, the height of the heel etc. So here are the 1770s compared to a shoe from 1720-1740.

1782 Women's cream silk buckled wedding shoes

1785 Women's ivory sprigged silk shoe

1785 circa Women's cream court shoe with an Italian heel

1785-'89 Women's cream silk court shoe with Italian heel and green braid

Circa 1785 ladies ivory silk shoe

1800-1809 Women's cream silk court shoes

1825 Women's emerald green court silk flat-soled court shoe.

Makers name: A. Acock, 42 St James Street, London

How did they do it? Were their feet really not only smaller but so much slimmer. Mine are a size 6 and not a wide fit.

1830 Women's black/green silk flat soled court shoe, with ankle straps

1830-1849 Women's navy silk court shoe with 1/2inch heel and ribbon strap

Depending on the decoration and colour combinations chosen similarly styled silk shoes can look very different.

1850s Pair of women's green silk shoes with applique gold braid and sequins

1850s cream silk slippers with elastic straps

1850-1859 Women's brown silk flat soled court shoes

I do love finding a makers label inside a historic shoe here we have Greder & Schenck, Pains

1850s pair of women's maroon silk velvet mules with metal embroidery

1857-1862 Women's silk side laced flat-soled wedding ankle boots. So tiny!

1860 pair of women's cream silk court shoes with bows on vamps for a wedding.

This one has come through time with some original documentation.

Circa 1860 Women's cream elastic side boot

1860s Pair of pink silk buttoned ankle boots

c.1867-1870 Pair of women's cream silk button boots with painted vamp and heel

Maker: F. Pinet - exhibition/wedding shoe

Circa 1880-1889 Women's green silk court shoes decorated with heavy metal thread. Oh how gorgeous they must have been!

And there were still more boots to come...!

Pair of women's cream (originally pink) silk 'Tango' leg boots - c.1880's

1885-1890 Pair of women's green satin lace boots with gold braid applique . High heel.

It was fabulous to look inside and see evidence of the original colours of the silks used and that colour change from outside to inside, green to red! That is an effect I will certainly be mirroring. Attempting to reflect in my work the aging process of textiles as well as the aging process of the humans who wear and utilise them is something that fascinates me.