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The Ultimate Guide to Vintage Shoe Styles

Vintage footwear offers an endless treasure trove of unique styles that can elevate any outfit. From dainty heels to chunky platforms, retro shoes give modern looks a playful blast from the past. As vintage fashion continues to trend, more people are incorporating statement shoes to emulate eras gone by.

In this week's blog, we'll guide you through the key vintage shoe styles that ruled different decades. Whether you're after a pair of vintage originals or new shoes inspired by retro silhouettes, read on for an in-depth overview of iconic vintage shoe fashion throughout the years. Discover how historic shoe designs laid the foundation for modern footwear we love today.

1920s: Flappers Kick Up Their Heels

Women's footwear in the roaring 1920s was all about showcasing legs and allowing movement for dance. Shorter flapper-era hemlines led to the emergence of Mary Janes, T-strap shoes and other dainty strappy styles in new daring heights. The authentic flapper look combines a low heel or flat with a delicate strappy silhouette, embellished with decorative buckles, bows or beadwork.

Popular materials for 1920s shoes included patent leather, satin, and kid leather. Shiny or matte black, white and silver were go-to shoe colors to complement the era's preference for all things Art Deco. Splashes of jewel tones added flirty, feminine flair. Distinctive Louis heel shapes with a curved inset and slight lift gave 1920s shoes that quintessential jazz age silhouette.

Key 1920s shoe styles:

  • Mary Janes: Low-heeled strap shoes with a rounded toe and distinctive buckle or button strap fastening across the foot. Often decorated with embroidery, cut-outs or sparkling brooches.

  • T-straps: Shoes with a slim t-bar strap delicately crossing over the instep. Worn by flappers dancing the Charleston and working telephone operators.

  • Spectator pumps: Two-tone oxford heels combining masculine and feminine elements. Typically featured cream and black or white and black colour combos.

  • Spats: Cloth or canvas lace-up ankle coverings worn by men for formal occasions and with suits. Spats tapered over shoe laces for polished protection.

  • The Charleston: A low-heeled t-strap gladiator style shoe with cross front straps ideal for the popular flapper dance. Designed by Salvatore Ferragamo.

Shoe designers like Andre Perugia and Salvatore Ferragamo transformed clunky 1910s footwear into slim, liberating styles reflecting the female empowerment of the flapper generation. New manufacturing techniques let them experiment with decorative adornments applied to delicate shoe shapes.

While flapper style reflects the excitement and creativity of the roaring twenties, many women still required sensible shoes for everyday. Durable oxfords with low block heels allowed them to take on new active roles in society and the workforce.

1930s: The Sculptural Wedge Takes Shape

The strong, towering wedge heel emerged right at the start of the 1930s, coinciding with the development of platform soles. This thick-heeled style gave the optical illusion of lengthened legs while still providing comfort and stability compared to skinny high heel counterparts.

Favored by Old Hollywood starlets and working women alike, bold wedge sandals and shoes with wraparound ankle straps became a popular 1930s staple. The wedge allowed women to wear heels even through the hardship of the Great Depression, when luxury was sparse. The flattering silhouette caught on across all price points.

More traditional t-straps, oxfords and slingbacks were still popular in polished leathers and calfhair. Dramatic cut-out details hinted at deco influences while maintaining an everyday wearability. Men's styles remained simple and classic with minimal embellishment.

Key 1930s shoe styles:

  • Wedge heels: Shoes with a heavy, thick heel that ran the full length of the sole. Sculptural sensation made popular by Italian designer Salvatore Ferragamo.

  • Platform soles: Layered sole construction that provided hidden height. Combined with wedge heels for maximum elevation.

  • T-strap sandals: Elegant and delicate open-toed dress shoes with a t-bar strap across the front of the foot.

  • Oxfords: Feminine and masculine takes on the classic lace-up shoe, featuring low block heels.

  • Slingbacks: Shoes with a heel strap allowing the wearer's foot to slip in and out while securing around the ankle.

  • Spectators: Continued from the 1920s as a two-tone style, but often featured a thicker sole.

The late 1930s brought a return to more frivolous footwear as economic recovery reached the masses. Shoe designers took inspiration from their Art Deco surroundings, adding geometric cut-outs, ankle straps emulating architecture shapes, glittering embellishments and nude colour tones.

1940s: Patriotic Style for Wartime

WWII brought rationing and scarcity of materials, so 1940s shoes emphasised durable, versatile styles for women filling menswear jobs. The platform wedge heel continued its influence re-imagined as “victory shoes” adhering to leather rations. Pin-up girl glamour also emerged in slinky peep toe pumps and cross-front sandals. Their frivolity provided escapism from wartime worries.

Men’s styles remained simple and classic. Oxford brogues, wingtips and practical work boots prevailed along with athletic sneakers like the Converse All Star.

Hollywood films offered a source of fashion inspiration and distraction from reality. Rita Hayworth's glamorous on-screen looks sparked a demand for open-toed platforms and mules adorned with bows or embroidery.

Key 1940s shoe styles:

  • Peep toe pumps: Ladylike closed heel shoes with a discreet centre cut-out opening at the toes. Hint of flesh was risqué for the era.

  • Saddle shoes: Unisex lace-up leather Oxford shoes with contrasting colour panels, influenced by riding saddle stitching.

  • Wedge espadrilles: Ankle-strap wedges with braided jute or rope soles, which were ration compliant and summery.

  • Wingtips: Men’s sturdy dress shoes with stitched toe caps and wing-shaped perforated broguing details.

  • Platforms: High arched soles with curved “glamour heels” created an elegant, leg-lengthening line.

Postwar prosperity saw shoemakers revive impractical yet beautiful styles in new technicolor palettes. Brilliant jewel tones brought optimism, while Lucite offered a see-through novelty trend. Bows, lace, ruffles and rosettes adorned multi-layered platforms.

1950s: All American Classics

The 1950s brought a return to traditional feminine glamour and elegance as postwar patriotism and conformity took hold. Classic graceful pumps, loafers and oxfords in leathers, suedes and fabrics reflected the colourful, ladylike aesthetic of the era. Narrow stilettos allowed height on more practical curvaceous mid-century heel shapes. Pointed toes mimicked missiles and American ambition. Popular colours included patriotic red, classic black and tan, pastel pinks and mint greens.

For men, clean and simple wingtip Oxfords and sturdy boots prevailed as suburban businessmen required footwear for commuting. Hollywood stars like James Dean and Marlon Brando popularised motorcycle and cowboy boots.

Key 1950s shoe styles:

  • Stilettos: Narrow high heels designed by Roger Vivier for Christian Dior. Allowed for the illusion of longer, slender legs.

  • Pumps: Closed-toe slip-on heels, either pointed or round toe, with a demure slim heel. Core of ladylike dressing.

  • Loafers: Comfortable slip-on flat shoes often adorned with decorative tassels or buckles inspired by menswear.

  • Saddle Oxfords: Unisex lace-up shoes combining black and white leathers in an equestrian style.

  • Winklepickers: Pointed toes men's shoes embellished with fringes, chains or metal grommets. Part of the Teddy Boy look.

  • Kitten heels: Shorter, slimmer 2 inch heels perfect for wearing all day. A comfortable and stylish choice for office and suburban wear.

1960s: Androgynous Chic

Shoe style in the 1960s broke out of tradition, mirroring the shifting gender roles and youth-oriented counterculture of the decade. New bold futuristic shapes included block heels, knee-high boots and the return of 1930s-inspired platforms.

Clunky loafers, flats and sandals in simple leathers and rubber paved the way for a more casual, androgynous style of dressing for men and women. Miniskirts let shoes take centre stage.

Youth culture and music heavily influenced 1960s footwear. Pointy Beatle boots, fringed suede "moccasins" and psychedelic sneaker designs expressed a more rebellious attitude.

Key 1960s shoe styles:

  • Go-go boots: High heeled, tight-fitting knee- or mid-calf boots ready for dance floor action. Essential for the mod look.

  • Chelsea boots: Unisex ankle boots with elastic side gussets making them easy to slip on. Beatnik favourite adopted by mods.

  • Clogs: Traditional engraved Swedish wooden soled sandal-shoes embraced by hippies for their comfort and laidback aesthetic.

  • Kitten heels: Short, slim scarcely elevated heels around 2 inches high created a ladylike Audrey Hepburn silhouette.

  • Dr. Martens: Durable lace-up leather and rubber boots with trademark yellow stitching and cushioned air-padded soles. Originally workwear that turned rebellious.

  • Mary Quant: Modernist creations by the British miniskirt pioneer featuring bright PVC go-go boots and minimal futuristic shapes.

The rise of individuality, social change and youthquake style opened doors to innovative shoe design. Sartorial rules were kicked to the curb in favour of fashion freedom.

1970s: Wild Disco Platforms

Upward soaring platform shoes took centre stage in the 1970s, fuelled by disco dancing and funk music flair. Massive heels, bold colours and showy details let fashion followers strut their stuff and tower over the dance floor. For men, cowboy boots and creative platform Oxfords maintained a flamboyant spirit while pop stars like Elton John and David Bowie blurred gender lines. Flare jeans and jumpsuits accommodated the footwear excess.

Natural cork and rope woven wedges also made an appearance in line with the earthy hippie movement and back to nature mentality. These contrasted heavily against space age metallic discotheque shoes.

Key 1970s shoe styles:

  • Platforms: Thick towering sole shoes made for disco. Teetering heights could top 5 inches.

  • Block heels: Thick stacked heels in bright colours and fabrics adorned with ankle straps.

  • Clogs: Scandinavian wooden soled shoes saw a revamp with carved uppers and platform height.

  • Cowboy boots: Western-style leather stacked heel ankle boots worn by men and women. Reached pointed toes.

  • Creepers: Distinctive thick lug-soled leather lace-up shoes tapping into rockabilly style. Punk appropriation emerged in the late 70s.

Platform shoes allowed wearers to both keep up with disco trends and make an anti-establishment statement. As the punk movement crept in, enormous heels were paired with leather, studs and chains to add a rebellious edge.

1980s: Aerobic Sneakers & Power Dressing

Athletic shoes became acceptable for everyday wear during the fitness craze of the 1980s. Nike Air technology and Reebok Freestyle walking shoes kicked off a sneaker explosion. Distinctive iconic styles helped brands build cultural clout.

Sneakers were no longer just for sport but showed status through desirable logos. They also matched the casual streetwear vibe of hip hop music. Classic Converse, Adidas and Vans skate shoes remained popular.

The decade also saw bold neon, metallics and animal prints for party shoes. Stilettos returned as powerful career women adopted a strong "power dressing" aesthetic with broad shoulders and slim skirts.

For men, Wall Street gave rise to the classic loafer. Casual boat shoes, driving moccasins and penny loafers were preppy and nonconformist. Jellies provided unisex beachy fun.

Key 1980s shoe styles:

  • Sneakers: Athletic tech shoes for recreation crossed into everyday streetwear. Nike, Reebok and Adidas led trends.

  • Jellies: Transparent plastic sandals gaining popularity in bright enamelled hues. Cheap, water-friendly and trendy.

  • Stilettos: Streamlined yet towering pumps and slingbacks for a femme fatale edge.

  • Oxfords: Wingtip and cap toe lace-up men's dress shoes for business attire.

  • Boat shoes: Leather lace-up deck shoes with non-slip soles, preppy for leisure.

The 1980s hosted a dichotomy between power dressing and athletic streetwear. As young professionals entered an ambitious new era, shoes straddled comfort and assertive polish.

Beyond the 80s: Vintage Revival

Vintage shoe styles never fade away fully. The 1990s and Y2K era saw a mix of minimalist sporty sneakers along with revivals of 1960s go-go boots and 1970s platforms. Renewed interest in classic vintage silhouettes keeps shoemakers today drawing inspiration from the past.

Recent decades have also brought throwbacks like chunky dad sneakers, Mary Janes, kitten heels and jelly sandals. Youth culture continues to drive novelty revivals. Screen icons and influencers have power over today's footwear fads.

However, core vintage styles like oxfords, loafers, boots and pumps remain anchored in timeless appeal. Subtle tweaks to heel shapes, textures and colours refresh the classics each season.

From dainty flapper heels to towering disco platforms, iconic vintage shoe designs continue to shine, influence modern fashion and connect us to the past through timeless soles.

There you have it - the complete history of vintage shoe styles and how they impacted decades of fashion. Whatever your favourite retro decade, keep your feet dressed to impress with a pair of vintage originals or new shoes echoing iconic looks from the past. The options for achieving a stand-out vintage ensemble from head to toe are literally endless.

Until next time

Emma x

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