Best Foot Forward

This man’s shoe was acquired by the BSM in 1983. The upper is made of a light blue silk brocade woven with a multi-colour floral pattern interspersed with metallic silver threads. The heel is covered with fine pink leather. The quarters, the back sides of the shoe, have tabs extending over the vamp that are tied with a large red silk grosgrain bow. These tabs, along with the topline, are covered with a pink silk binding to accent the heel. Its condition upon arrival was poor. There were losses of brocade on both sides of the vamps and quarters plus a hole at the end of the toe. The binding ribbon had almost completely deteriorated with 80% loss. The original bow was extant but it had faded as had the brocade and the leather. This forty-year-old photograph, taken at the time the shoe was catalogued, gives you an idea of its state even though the colour of the film emulsion has shifted significantly.

It was impossible to match the pattern of the brocade. Numerous colours of yarns made it challenging to select the perfect uniform thread match. It was decided to go with the predominant colour palette to fill and support the holes in the vamp and quarters: the pale grey-blue ground of the brocade. Green silk thread was used for the couching stitches as it was the most frequently occurring float yarn for the floral design. Silk crepeline ribbon was dyed pink to match the original topline binding. The crushed bow was humidified to reshape; interior supports for its loops were made of acid free card stock painted to match the unfaded underside of the ribbon which would be visible to the viewer when the shoe was on display.

While there are many men’s eighteenth century boots in the collection, there are only three single shoes and one pair. The pair dates to the early 18th century; two of the singles are black leather; this brocade example is the fanciest. Historically, men’s footwear was not valued and saved the same way as women’s, making them a rare item in any museum’s collection. This shoe has been displayed in a few different exhibitions for 10 years in total, although not in a single stretch. The brocade has continued to fade and the dye for the silk faille infill has faded slightly as well; the silk thread used to sew the fills in place has not.

You can see this shoe on display in the current special exhibition The Great Divide: Footwear in the Age of Enlightenment. It is also featured in the exhibition poster as the signature image.

Ada Hopkins, BSM Conservator

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