Holli Mintzer’s Adventures in Vintage Window Shopping column last addressed the vital issue of the princess coat.
We don’t really think that often about feet. I mean, I don’t. Maybe you do, I’m not judging. But feet are not a thing I think about particularly, and more than that the size of people’s feet is something I very rarely dwell on.
But it does come up occasionally, for me, because vintage shoes are so goddamn tiny. When you’re trying to find shoes that the non-elfin members of the population can purchase and wear, you end up thinking about feet more than usual. Mostly, you end up wondering why everyone’s feet were so narrow prior to 1980, or if they just wore really pinchy shoes at all times.
This gets particularly tricky with boots. Because the thing about boots is this: women kind of stopped wearing them for the whole middle of the 20th century. Boots were ubiquitous for late Victorian women–they were what you wore during the day, no questions asked. Button-up ankle boots with a small, curved heel were basically mandatory from the 1860s onwards. Later, lace-up boots started to take their place, but the shape of the shoe didn’t really change.
The the 20s hit, and hemlines rose, and boots looked kind of silly with the new fashions. So unless you were flying an airplane, farming, or participating in WWII, boots basically disappeared for forty years.
Fortunately, all it took to bring boots back was for hemlines to get even shorter, because tall boots look awesome with a miniskirt. The mid-60s saw the Return of the Boot in a big way. The 70s were basically a bootsplosion. And they’ve stayed with us since then, but this does mean that for vintage buyers, their boot options are pretty severely front-loaded with more recent stuff.
As with all vintage, the older you go the smaller the pieces, and boots are no exception. However, I’m going to try to keep the focus on boots sized 8 and up. Smaller-footed ladies, I apologize, but in all honesty the world is your shoebox already when it comes to vintage. You don’t need much help from me. Also, you can probably run on top of the snow like Legolas, and I’m jealous.
So let’s start with the earliest boots. Women’s boots appear occasionally from the end of the eighteenth century, but they’re not super common, and didn’t become ubiquitous until after the Civil War. Wearable examples of antebellum boots are basically nonexistent: they’re too tiny, too fragile, and were made identically for left and right feet. They can be pretty, though. These are from the Met’s collection:
Postwar, a higher ankle boot, usually buttoning, became the standard for a good long while. Late-Victorian button boots (and the occasional laced example) are lovely, and range from the simple to the hella elaborate. Some of my favorite examples come in bright colors, with intricate cutwork or embellishment, and they can be pretty spectacular. Sadly, they’re also virtually impossible to find in wearable condition, especially the fancy ones.
So, we’ve covered a hundred or so years of boots you can’t wear. Let’s move into slightly more achievable territory.
From the 1890s through to the teens, button boots gave way to front-lacing. The shape didn’t change too much, though– the heels maybe got a little higher, the toes a little more shapely.
These are fancy examples, admittedly. Most women wore much simpler brown or black front-lacing ankle boots, and those are the ones that you’re likely to see in the wild. We’ve finally reached the territory of boots you can find on Etsy, which would be really exciting if they weren’t all Cinderella-sized. I turned up one pair of size 8 wearable boots from the turn of the century on Etsy, two on eBay, and one miraculous size 9/10.
Now we’re on the verge of the 20s, and from here to WWII it’s going to mostly be boots that would look awesome on Amelia Earhart. There are even some wearable, non-doll-sized examples!
Fashion boots basically don’t exist through the 50s and early 60s, so we’re going to skip those decades. Fortunately, from the mid-60s onwards we’re back in Boot Country.
Interestingly, there are a lot of 1960s boots that echo earlier styles. These are dead ringers for the 30s aviatrix styles, except for the shape of the toe:
Sadly, these are all 7.5s, but larger examples are out there. I hope.
There are also 60s boots that riff on Victorian and Edwardian fashion, incorporating cutwork, embroidery, or even a mod spin on the button boot.
Mod boots get really wild really fast, though, and a lot of them don’t have much in common with their pre-war ancestors. Go-go boots come in every color of the rainbow.
And as we get into the 70s, boots get even crazier. (Did I just find the finishing touch for someone’s bad-ass Wonder Woman cosplay? Pretty sure I did.)
Now we’re getting into Frye territory, not to mention cowboy boots. There are a ton of boots to choose from– suede ankle boots, packer boots, riding boots. I have a few favorites, but you’re spoiled for choice from here on out.
Here’s the funny thing, though: in the 80s, we come back around to Edwardian-style lace-up ankle boots. There are even boots that recall the earliest Regency ankle boots! These are fairly easy to find– I see them every time I go thrifting– but they can be cute, especially when they’re in unusual colors.
Now if you’ll excuse me, writing this article has made me crave a pair of vintage roper boots. Happy hunting!