The Museum of Arts and Applied Sciences (MAAS) in Sydney, formerly the Powerhouse Museum, has an amazing collection of shoes that range from medieval work shoes to modern haute couture. The Joseph Box shoemaking archive forms the core of the collection, and when I was a curatorial volunteer in the design and textiles department I was able to view one of the more interesting pieces from this collection.
According to the museum’s curatorial notes the construction of these shoes is as follows: “Women’s pair of straight laced shoes of rand construction with visible stitching and upcurved blunt pointed over needlepoint toe and covered Louis heel. Uppers consist of embroidered linen, lined with silk and leather, featuring a high cut vamp with square tongue, under latchets tieing in centre front, oblique side seams, centre back seam and leather soles. Edges bound in pink silk and uppers decorated with silver scrolls and silk flowers embroidered in the centres.”
Interestingly the design of these shoes leans to a production date in England in the early eighteenth century, around 1705-1715. Now, I’m sure any of my readers that are familiar with seventeenth and eighteenth-century fashions will note that the embroidery motifs on these shoes certainly do not resemble those of the eighteenth century. On close inspection you can see that the embroidery detail features strawberries, rosehips, carnations, thistles and cornflowers that are framed by metallic-thread scrolls.
Indeed when footwear specialist June Swann was invited to view them at the Museum she noted that: “Although shoes were made “straight” and would normally have been swapped daily to equalise wear, each shoe has been pieced at the bunion joint where wear would be greatest, if worn continually on the same foot. There is no evidence the piecing was done after the present soles were attached. This suggests that the uppers were either made into shoes on a previous occasion (probably not before the late 17th century when women’s toe shapes change to a point) or, less likely, that the uppers were pieced during the making of this pair.”
The presence of piecing in the fabric of the shoes indicates that they were most likely made from another older garment. Going purely off the embroidery, it seems that these shoes have been made from an early seventeenth-century garment, possibly a coif, but it is more likely that they were made from an Elizabethan or Jacobean embroidered waistcoat, of which many examples have survived.
Take for example the embroidered motifs on these linen waistcoats from the Victoria and Albert Museum.
This woman’s waistcoat dates from 1600-1625 and features silk embroidery with spangles that depict “honeysuckle, pansies, carnations, foxgloves, borage, strawberries, cornflowers, rosehips, thistles, columbine and vine leaves.” Silver-gilt thread scrolls frame these floral motifs which was characteristic of this style of Jacobean design.
The second waistcoat has a slightly larger date range of 1590-1630 but contains the same sort of silk floral embroidery motifs of “spring sweet peas, oak leaves, acorns, columbine, lilies, pansies, borage, hawthorn, strawberries and honeysuckle.”
As with the previous waistcoat and with most embroidered garments from this period, the floral motifs are framed by embroidered scroll work.
How an intricate embroidered waistcoat came to made into a pair of shoes in the early eighteenth century remains a mystery. However, as all dress historians of the early modern period will attest, there are few surviving extant clothing examples, not only due to the age and fragility of these items, but also because many were often remade into other items.
Fabric, particularly silk embroidery, was extremely expensive during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and so early modern people were the thriftiest up-cyclers. Embroidered shoes were also highly fashionable at the start of the eighteenth century, as this other pair of shoes in the Box collection shows. However, as you can see from this example, the style of embroidery, while still focused on floral designs, is much different to that other the early seventeenth century.
Instead of paying for a brand new pair of shoes then, clearly for the original owner of these thought it was cheaper to remake a family heirloom into some fashionable eighteenth-century footwear.
 ‘Jacket, c. 1600-1625’, Victoria and Albert Museum <http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O15345/jacket-unknown/>
 ‘Jacket, c. 1590-1630’, Victoria and Albert Museum <http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O80226/jacket-unknown/>