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Walking through history: Womens footwear in the 1860s

Posted on Friday, December 26, 2014 at 9:16 am

Reproduction dyeable sateen “Tissot” 1860s slippers, shown here dyed blue and decorated with handmade rosettes.

When it comes to shoes for one’s Civil War impression, today’s lady may be tempted to disregard the correct dress of the foot. Footwear from the 1860s, however, is unique in design and can elevate one’s historical look tremendously, adding that extra accuracy both seen by the public and experienced by the wearer.

At American Duchess, my goal was to recreate 1860s slippers and button boots to provide more options for reenactresses portraying Civil War era characters. I wanted to understand how 1860s footwear was originally made and how we could apply these techniques to our reproduction “Tissot” slippers and “Renoir” boots.

Between the turn of the 19th century and the 1850s, little attention was given to a lady’s shoes. Long skirts and numerous petticoats obscured a lady’s feet completely, maintaining her modesty. Fashionable American women wore tight-fitting, flat footwear with very thin soles, offering little to no practicality. These shoes reflected society’s expectation that a woman be delicate, reserved, and confined to the home. Designs were basic, colors somber, and fashions unchanging for a quarter of a century. During this period, shoes were made in small shops or by women in their own homes who could learn to make the family’s shoes using the popular booklet “Every Lady Her Own Shoemaker.”

All of this changed, however, at the beginning of the 1860s with the mechanization of footwear production.

As the heel came back into fashion in the 1850s, enormous advancements in shoemaking were being developed. The footwear manufacturing industry in America shifted from small local shops and work done at home to large mechanized factories using the latest technology to produce shoes much faster and cheaper than ever before. Machines designed for every step of the shoemaking process were in heavy use by the 1860s, including the sewing machine, binding machine and those for pegging, stitching, and welting soles.

With the onset of the Civil War, the demand for boots from both the Union and Confederate Armies put even more pressure on the factories to innovate and ramp up production. This increased volume lead to an explosion of choice supported by the marketing arm of the manufacturers. Ladies were encouraged to buy more shoes for everything from the boudoir, eating breakfast, balls and parties, indoor daywear, outdoor walking, visiting, traveling and the list goes on.

Boots became more popular than ever for all occasions of dress, even evening. Satin side-buttoning and side-lacing boots were the preferred choice for evening attire until the early 1870s. Daywear boots also became more practical, reflecting the changing status of women who were beginning to push for more sensible dress and greater freedoms within society. When researching boot styles for this period, I wanted to focus on this “attractive-yet-independent” idea, with the popular scalloped side-buttoning closure combined with sturdy leather and a practical heel height.

For Civil War reenactresses today, choice is ironically limited compared to the variety of footwear in the 1860s. The square toes, short heels, and unique silhouette are almost impossible to approximate with today’s store-bought shoes.

In developing our Civil War styles for American Duchess, I found trying to match the 1860s shape particularly challenging. The original examples in my collection are very long and narrow, with no toe boxes or arch support. While we had to compromise on the arch support for the sake of wearability, I found that extending the long, flat, square toe and raising the instep brought us closer to the unique 1860s silhouette.

As a researcher I was excited because we were rediscovering the lost technology of the past and learning how shoes were made and worn in the 1860s. Our goal was to attempt to create a shoe and boot that looked spot-on for the period without the comfort issues of original footwear.

Because the 1860s is a period of footwear history that ties in so acutely with the timeline of dress, social change, wartime, and the industrial revolution in America, that the dress of the foot in Civil War reenactment should be given just as much attention as that of the body. By understanding the developments in industry, the many styles and designs to choose from, and the social context of shoes in this period, both Northern and Southern ladies may make informed decisions in their footwear.

Lauren Stowell is a historical costumer, blogger, and founder of American Duchess, Inc., which designs and sells women’s shoes from all historical eras, including the Civil War.

Sources for 1860s Historical Footwear:

•American Duchess Historical Footwear & Accessories –

•Robert Land Footwear Ltd. –

•Fall Creek Sutlery –

•Blockade Runner –

•Fugawee Corporation –

Cited Sources

Peacock, John. Shoes: The Complete Sourcebook. Thames & Hudson, 2005. Print

Rexford, Nancy. Women’s Shoes in America, 1795-1930. The Kent State University Press, 2000. Print.

Riello, Giorgio, and Peter McNeil. Shoes: A History from Sandals to Sneakers. Berg, 2011. Print.

Swann, June. Shoes. B.T. Batsford, 1983. Print.

Walford, Jonathan. The Seductive Shoe: Four Centuries of Fashion Footwear. Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2007. Print.

-By Lauren Stowell