From the Vault: 18th century English shoes

Take a peek into our 14,000+ collection with our new blog series, From the Vault! Every week, we're sharing interesting stories about one of our artefacts.

What is the provenance of this pair? When did they enter the BSM collection?

This pair of shoes dates to the early 18th century, likely 1725-40. They are possibly English or Welsh. They were made part of the BSM collection in 1990, after they were purchased at auction from Christies South Kensington. It has been suggested that these shoes came from the family of the Baronet Kylsant but further research is needed before we can be sure.

Are there any features that distinguish this pair from other footwear from the same period and geographical location?

The silhouette of this shoe is typical of early 18th century women’s footwear, including the pointed toes and low squat heels. In addition, silk brocades and satins remained the material of choice for middle and upper class women’s shoes. The straps on this pair would have been secured with glittering buckles which remained extremely popular in the early and mid 18th century.

Can you elaborate more on the materials used to make this pair?

The pair is made of pink silk satin, and is lined with yellow linen. It has a wooden sole and kid leather details. It also features beautiful silver braid along the centre front of the vamp, and on the back of the counter and heel. There are several pairs of 18th century shoes in our collection that share this detail – metallic braid, lace and embroidery, made of real gold and silver, added a sparkly touch to fancier pairs from this period.

Who would have worn this pair and where or for what occasion?

It is very likely that these belonged to an upper-middle or upper-class woman. This is suggested by the use of higher-end materials such as silver braid. It is also likely that these would have been worn with a dress featuring similar, if not the very same, fabric.

We know that shoes tell so many fascinating stories...what can we learn from this pair that our audience would find interesting?

There are so many histories that can be told from a pair of 18th century shoes such as these, and one of the most fascinating is about silver mining in the 18th century. Consumption of silver grew significantly worldwide during this period. Silver was used in the production of drinkware, plates, home décor and of course, fashion. Though these silver items were beautiful and conferred social status, they were produced through violent means. Almost 85% of the silver mined in this period came from Mexico, Bolivia and Peru which were under colonial Spanish rule. The Spanish used both conscripted Indigenous peoples and imported enslaved Africans to work in these mines. Mining was an extremely dangerous job and countless individuals laboured under brutal conditions and lost their lives in this line of work. Its so interesting how some of the most ‘beautiful’ artifacts in our collection, often contain rather dark histories. We explore the history of silver mining and many other 18th century stories such as this in our exhibit, The Great Divide, which is now open!

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