As seen on BBC TV's 'Great Antiques Hunt'
Winner, 1996

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In the dim dark days of dressing ourselves, people saw no distinction between necessary hardware and jewelry.   Clothing simply had to be fastened in place by something that worked.  Because everyone needed these bits – as we now require buttons, snaps and zips – a large number of bronze buckles, pins and hooks have survived from times of great antiquity.   From primitive forms, these developed into items prized for beauty, as well as usefulness.  Being labor-intensive, hence expensive, leather goods evolved quite early into status symbols, so a related category of artifacts (simply called leather decorations) – developed to join the rest and are easily identifiable by prongs on their reverses.

Shoes in particular got their start some five million years ago with the Ice Age, so say respected authorities (well, duh). Our earliest known images of foot coverings are circa 15,000 BCE cave paintings in Spain, showing a woman in fur boots and a man in boots of skin. The earliest surviving shoe found so far, the Oregon Sandal, is about 10,000 years old; its sole was fixed to the foot by string.

Footwear Gets Fancy

Sandals came a long way between then and examples shown in ancient Egyptian art. Slate cosmetics tablets belonging to Pharoah Narmer (circa 3,000 BCE) him followed by a slave carrying his sandals. Depictions elsewhere show lesser Egyptians holding theirs, so we can conclude even a Pharoah usually walked barefoot, reserving his shoes for occasions of necessity or ceremony. Cleverly, Egyptian andals of braided papyrus were molded to a footprint in wet sand. By then, shoes were even growing decorative: The high-born got peaked toes, while victorious warriors had the insteps of their sandals adorned with figures of those they’d defeated.  And – now we’re onto something – the most privileged Egyptian women stepped out in sandals decorated with gems!

Besides rich ornamentation, the Greeks used color and the height of the sole to indicate social standing, and the Romans – besides developing sandals tough enough to tramp around the empire – were fetishists when it came to their ladies’ shoes.  Ovid tells us a senator carried one of his lover’s sandals in his tunic and kissed it often.

Classical standards of craftsmanship collapsed with Rome, except in Byzantium, where shoes and boots of the ruling class (men and women) were heavily jeweled in the 5th and 6th centuries, some even gilded.  The Church and early Christians had no compunction about coveting these and so the practice of giving lavish shoes as presents began. They also constituted major bequests, leading to the phrase “following in one’s father’s footsteps.”

In the 10th century, gemstone (often pearl) beading was de rigeur for the affluent, appearing as a central element on shoe insteps and the turned-down tops of boots called pedules – and by the time of the Norman Conquest (1066), shoes were often ornamented with gold. Then things went nuts for 300 years or so, with the dominant attribute of men’s shoes being oints so long people tripped themselves regularly and did goodness-knows-what under the table. Variously called poulaines, Crackowes and Winklepickers, they were meant to be ribald – okay, even obscene – as were their successors and gender opposites: fur-lined, slashed shoes called Scarpine, Duck's Bill and Bear's Paw shoes. In their so-called “Dunderbludgeon” variation, gouty Henry VII found relief, but his courtiers were constantly stepping on one another and stomping off to duel.  Shoes of this type sprawled as wide as 12 inches before they were at last legislated out of favor like poulaines.

Poulaine with elevated patten support

Ladies of the period, blessedly left out of these unsavory trends, went for heels, a fashion set in the early 16th century, when Catherine de Medici moved from Florence to Paris to marry the king.  Small, she wore high-heeled shoes at her wedding and they remained in vogue all her life.  Men eventually took to them, too. Mules with pearls or rabbit’s ear bows and one-inch platform soles were Elizabeth I’s passion.  Wedge-shaped heels also came in and, from Italy, the chopine set Europe abuzz. This design raised the platform as high as a towering – not to say tottering – two feet!  Walking canes instantly became stylish (well, duh), as did having a couple of maids or escorts constantly at hand.


At the start of the 17th century, slippers seemed more right.  (Why am I not surprised?)  They were first tied on with elaborate spangled rosettes, then ribbons in the classical manner.  By 1680, however, the usual instep fastening was a strap and a – now we’re here – buckle. We’re highly unlikely to run across any treasures from this timeframe, though; they’d belong in a museum.  Even Georgian ones are exceptional finds.

Georgian & Regency Footwear & Buckles

In the 18th century, slippers morphed to pumps on high spool heels and were sporting glitzy jeweled buckles before long.  Over the decades, heel heights went up and down between slippers and pumps, but those buckles sparkled on.   The rich had them in gold or silver with real stones, while others had imitations with rhinestones or pastes. The latter are much more likely to be found today, since few “real” jewels survived the Victorian Meltdown; they were convinced their taste could improve on anything that went before but, in all fairness, those who came before them did their share of “updating” the family jewels, too.

If a faux-gemstone piece is honestly from this era, you’ll be able to see through the stones the tiny black dots of pitch by which they were attached. Very occasionally, real stones were fastened in by the same means.

Glittering shoe buckles of round shape, BTW, are associated with a group called the Macaroni Club or Macaronis. Not a club, per se, but a sort of youth movement among wealthy Englishmen (and some New Englanders), who couldn’t get enough of all things Italian and French during the 1770s.  The name, applied derisively by more staid Brits, referred to their importing continental cuisine, as well as flamboyant clothing and accessories.  With that background, does the song “Yankee Doodle Dandy” mean more to you?   You may also be interested to know that General George Washington’s toes sparkled when he was inaugurated as America’s first president.

Monarchs in Paris were a decided influence on shoe fashion through most of the period – squatty Louis XIV by threatening death to commoners in tall shoes and Louis XV by inventing the heel shape that still bears the name “Louis” or “Baby Louis.”  After the Revolution, French fashion altered markedly; in fact, at least one aristo faced the guillotine, betrayed by his diamond buckles.  Others, wiser, contributed theirs to the new government’s depleted treasury.

Pre-revolutionary Louis Heels

Even before the end of the 18th century, assembly-line shoe manufacturing had begun in earnest and the first retail shoe stores were open, making quality shoes available to many more people and tempting everyone to own several pair. The idea of having easily removable shoe accessories began to make a lot of sense.  A pity that guillotined Parisian didn’t have his change of buckles ready in time!

As the 19th century began, further strong personalities made signal contributions to footwear:  the Napoleon, Wellington and Blucher, created for the comfort and convenience of armies under their commands.  Strong neoclassical influence was also felt at this time, both in Napoleon’s Empire and Regency England, which made flat shoes and Grecian sandals very popular. So were exotic styles crafted to match the gauzy Oriental cotton fabrics that began reaching Europe then; these were decorated with beads, pearls and rhinestones.   Ladies’ lightweight slip-on styles, although impractical for outdoors, were suitable for dancing and reflected the popularity of balls in social life then. These ballerina designs with their square toes and fragile ribbon ties gradually gave way to white kid or silk boots with side laces that weren’t much sturdier.

Victorian Footwear, Buckles & Clips

The Victorian period in England began brightly enough in 1837 – she did love her diamonds, when a young thing – but Prince Albert’s 1861 death damped down the mood about as well as a revolution.   There was also the problem of the crinoline skirt, with its hoops so easily tilted. Soon ladies’ feet were primly booted (lest a glimpse of foot flesh drive men mad. 

Victorian boots styled for modesty

Another influence was the rising popularity of active Scottish holidays, sparked by Victoria’s stays at Balmoral, after which one boot style was named.

When shoes did appear, they had small heels, pointed toes, rosettes and lots of decoration – or were gussied up with buckles or early clips, usually quite large and often of cut steel, also known as marcasites, which the Victorians regarded as a suitable material for daytime wear. Recent advances in manufacturing, including the introduction of stamped jewelry components, made shoe accessories more widely available and affordable.  And, with shoes being easily available, people owned more than ever.  The idea of removable ornaments now made perfect sense.

Beads of cut steel, faceted like diamonds to glitter like crazy, had been crafted since the 18th century. The earliest marcasite work is generally regarded as the finest, but any examples that are individually riveted are highly desirable.   Even molded faux-marcasite pieces, if antique, are definitely collectible. Something to bear in mind about these is that they aren’t quite as tough as they look.  Rust is their mortal enemy, so try your best to keep them dry.

In France, which didn’t endure half a century of collective mourning, exquisite silver and paste shoe buckles were produced, which you can still find if you’re lucky, and some splendid Art Nouveau designs are available from time to time.

An especially interesting type of buckle for bead fanciers is the “winged” sort which took flight (as it were) in the late 19th century and continued to be made in the early 1900s.  These feature, around a central element, a winged arrangement of wires on which tiny beads are strung.  They can be really delightful.

Those exquisite French buckles of beaded mesh also date circa 1900.

20th Century Footwear, Buckles & Clips

Shoe clips became far more common than buckles in the 20th century and were produced in large numbers for about 60 years, giving us many wonderful Edwardian, Art Deco and Retro designs that are perfect to wear with today’s vintage-inspired fashions.

As you know if you follow fashion news, Edwardiana is a huge trend. Although the era technically lasted only from 1901 to 1910, the style wasn’t superceded until after World War I.  It began in the Victorian manner, which of course didn’t die with the queen. Skirts remained long and full, “Gibson Girl” bodices were still tightly corseted and accessories were an obsession. Court shoes with small Louis heels were popular for evening, often accented by embroidery, metallic thread and/or beadwork of glass or jet on the toes.  Decorative buckles were enjoyed by many, especially if they were clever enough to create them. From the Ladies' Home Journal and other magazines, women learned to make the trendiest types of shoe buckles, as well as bags, cutwork and lace accents, hair and hat decorations, fans, etc. Hats went totally mad for a while in size and ornamentation (requiring hatpins of lethal length, which will be the subject of our next newsletter).  On the more modern side, women’s activities were branching out; for instance, bicycling became a rage.  Daytime boots were right for this pursuit and there were even boots for evening, made of satin or kid with beaded straps& in tiers across the shin.

The ankle-binding ”hobble skirt” debuted circa 1910, inspired by “harem” skirts, and Eastern-style jeweled slippers staged a comeback to complement these, but a mincing gait no longer seemed ideal when men went off to fight The Great War, leaving women to run the factories. As shoes, like clothing, became more utilitarian, buckles and clips were at forefront, adding style both by day and night.  Cut steel, silver filigree and rhinestone versions were worn, as well as those wonderful home-mades, so often beaded.

The exhilaration of war’s end, along with women’s newfound independence and successful conclusion of the female suffrage movement led inevitably to the Flapper, with her short hair, short skirt, long beads and “Charleston” shoes. The foot became a focal point and the “bar shoe” – a single-bar pump with a pointed toe, high-waisted heel & one tiny button – was favored for dancing the night away. Cutwork-decorated, crossover, t-strap and high-tongued shoes were also popular.  Many styles were vividly colored and made of luxury materials or lavishly embellished; even so, you’ll often see Deco buckles designed to slide down that high-tongue or over a t-strap. 

The stock market crash of 1929 summarily ended the party by plunging the world into economic depression.  In other bad news, there came the rise of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin.  People escaped to the movies and were influenced by silver-screen glamor girls in bias-cut dresses, furs and fabulous jewels, inspiring diamond rhinestone knockoffs including loads of shoe clips it’s still easy to find. Sporty styles like slacks took off, too, worn with sandals or the new open-toed shoes prompted by a penchant for sunbathing. Platform shoes also made their 20th century debut, featuring materials such as wood and cork to complement exotic prints and colors.

Complicating shoemaking, a leather shortage was soon joined by wartime restrictions on its non-military use and that of rubber, along with the rationing of shoes.  Despite the Depression, the average American woman had five pairs by 1940 – and a good thing, too, because she’d have to get as much life out of them as possible, after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor. Heels, BTW, were then limited to one inch in height and there were only six color choices. War era shoes being made not for style but substantiality, clips came to the rescue again, as during World War I – and those who didn’t have them used everything they could lay hands on to ornament their wood- or cork-soled “wedgies.”  If you find clips commercially produced during the war, you may well be surprised by their quality.  As with other costume jewelry of the period, silver was often used, since many other metals were claimed for the war effort.

Even after the war's end in 1945, clips remained popular, because they represented a stunning value. High-fashion shoes with ornamented insteps cost about twice as much as plain pumps and other heels. The glamorous post-war “New Look” placed great emphasis on the foot, with introduction of the slim stiletto heel and a dazzling array of colors.  Since everything in the 1950s and early 1960s was supposed to go together as an ensemble – anybody else remember dyed-to-match shoes? – colored clips supplied an affordable option.  Clear rhinestone versions were popular in this era, too - often worn by schoolgirls also sporting prom-night tiaras.

Throughout the 20th century shoe clip heyday, which came to a close with the more casual looks favored since the mid-1960s, clip mechanisms in general became lighter, simpler and often more effective, which brings us to our concluding point

The Importance of Patent Numbers

A huge plus for collectors of shoe jewelry is that the operational elements of clips were often under patent and, if you have a patent number, you’re just seconds away from a very precise dating. Patent numbers, organized by year of issue, can be accessed at various sites online, including (US) and (UK)




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