The Beauty of Beads

By Elizabeth Semmelhack, Senior Curator

Small, luminous and colourful, beads have been used to decorate footwear around the world for centuries. Historically beads have been crafted from a wide variety of natural sources such as pearls but even in ancient times some of the most desirable beads were made of glass. From the very beginning beads were more than simple decorative objects, they were an integral part of trade. Glass beads were a staple European trade good during the Age of Exploration and their eager embrace by people the Europeans traded with transformed the fashion across the globe. The beaded footwear from North America is a testament to this and to the versatility of beads and the inventiveness of beaders.

Lakota, 1900. Moccasins with upper solidly beaded with white, rose and navy geometrical design on blue background.

Among the most exquisite beaded shoes in the collection are the beaded-soled footwear made by Lakota women in the second half of the 19th century.  Not only are the uppers of these shoes fully beaded but the soles are as well leading some to suggest that they were never intended to be worn.  Some have even suggested that this type of footwear was made exclusively for funerary wear. However, every pair in our collection shows ample evidence of wear both inside the shoe and out establishing a much more celebratory function for these artefacts.  This is corroborated by late 19th century photographic evidence showing men wearing beaded-soled moccasins at important gatherings.  What is inarguable about these shoes is that they were painstakingly crafted labours of love.   Whether decorating a pair of 19th century Lakota shoes or embellishing the uppers of 18th century slippers, beads add a shimmer of colour that never fades and always fascinates.

Here are a sample of other shoes from the BSM collection which use beads as a form of decoration.

Women’s pumps from the late 1700s are a created from a tiny beetle wing. We believe that the shoes which are made from embroidered linen were made in India and worn in England.

Boots such as these were part of the elaborately beaded and symbolically complex royal regalia that proclaimed the status of the oba or king of the Yoruba peoples. Nigeria, 1900.

Elaborately beaded shoes embellished with fresh water pearls. The peacocks on the vamps suggest that they were intended for royal wear as the peacock was an important royal symbol, and the beaded cypress trees symbolize longevity. Persia, mid-19th century. See more about it on our TikTok below.

Off the Shelf: Episode 32✨Featuring a pair of Persian babouche in today’s episode! #m#useum #f#acts

♬ original sound - batashoemuseum

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  1. Wonderfull, greeting from Belgium

  2. This fits like a dream and looks great. I have had few great experiences with dress shoes, so I'll definitely order this in black. Can't wait to wear that to work!
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  3. What a wonderful idea! That’s a perfect way to honor your children and have a beautiful design as well. I’m really interested in hearing how much the design of the star means to people.