During what is referred to as the Georgian era, men and women alike wore shoes with buckles. Boots were standard wear for most Englishmen, although depending on the occasion, men also sported shoes that relied on buckle fastenings. Buckles were traditionally worn with stacked heel dancing shoes, the glitter of the buckle drawing attention to those who excelled at this past time. A quantity of buckles has been preserved from this time period, images illustrate what was considered de rigueur evening wear. Initially fashioned from a variety of metals, sterling silver buckles came to be preferred. The buckles were not stamped as silver is now, consumers relied on the seller to authenticate their wares.

Faux paste jewels were worn by many, this was an acceptable custom as real jewels could easily be lost and many could not afford them. Tricks used by buckle makers included backing the paste with a black dot to give the illusion of depth and setting them in foil to enhance their sparkle. Men more commonly wore buckled shoes since the length of women's dresses covered most of their footwear. This period marks an abandonment of the more sober brocades for women's attire and brighter colored waistcoats for men. While women's dress colors and fabrics are becoming lighter, men's fashions are gradually becoming more modern as advocates of subtle refinement such as the iconic Beau Brummel rose to prominence.

The period of time after the Georgian era may properly be referred to as: Empire, when speaking about France. Federal, which is used to denote post-colonial America, and Regency, which covers England. Each of these three terms applies to the same time period; what changes is the point of reference. At this time, France and America have both gone through bloody revolutions. England has lost territory in the new world, and American independence has been won at great cost to the new nation. Since England was the mother land, American colonials enjoyed British exports. The colonies were responsible for sending raw materials to England who could then sell finished goods to those on the frontier.

Prior to the Revolutionary War that severed ties with Britain, Americans had inherited many English customs, including their culture and methods of dress. War is a costly thing, both in terms of money and lives lost. After winning the revolution, anti-British sentiment ran high throughout the impoverished nation. When British troops departed, they took with them a great deal of the things that had made large urban areas cities of distinction. Many Americans rejected British goods, and since the British blockade was in effect, getting items from England was a less feasible option than it had been previously.

France, an American ally during the revolt, was still friendly towards the nascent nation. While the United States of America could not deny its English roots, during the Federal period French graftings were introduced. Empire waisted gowns were a new French import. Heel heights for men and women dropped and wigs were worn less frequently as men stopped shearing their hair, favoring natural hair growth instead. With the shift from English goods and customs to French inspired ones, clothing was yet another way to support and identify with a particular political ideology while disdaining another. In France, shoe buckles grew to enormous dimensions, sometimes even ruining the shoe beneath due to their heft. Wealthy aristocrats who could afford real jewels wore them leading rise to the observation that some had: "the value of a good farm on each foot".

Buckles during this time were functional as well as fashionable. Latchets, or straps closed the top of a shoe and buckles were a way to keep these two pieces together. Although buckles were worn by any who could afford them, they became a hallmark of the aristocracy. Sources indicate that wearing them on an open Parisian street was taking a deadly risk as noble blood was the steady diet of Madame Guillotine. Anything associated with the nobility or aristocracy was rejected by the bourgeoisie. Trousers became longer as breeches were another mark of the privileged; for more information on the role played by this clothing piece, search for the Jacobin group known as the Sans-culottes. More than simple clothing changes, these ideas embraced new attitudes. Art is not produced in a vacuum, styles may be dismissed as representative of the time, yet those who overlook the reasons behind these adaptations are missing the larger picture.

Footwear worn by prominent political figures deserves investigation as it can provide clues about eras gone by. When Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated during March of 1801, he broke with tradition. Recently appointed President of a divided nation after a hotly contested election requiring 36 ballots, Jefferson sought to unify the country by presenting himself in the clothes of a commoner who walked towards the incomplete Capitol building. Today, an equivalent action would show President Obama being sworn in while wearing work boots and the type of uniform favored by mechanics. Additionally, he would forgo any lavish inaugural events, eat a simple meal and spend the night with his wife and children as a way to demonstrate that he values family time.

When buckles were shunned by the lower class French and their sympathizers, something had to take their place as a method to fasten shoes. Women resorted to tying straps around their ankles to keep shoes on their feet. When Thomas Jefferson wore a common footwear to his inauguration, it was not decorated with buckles, nor did he wear any ribbons, another affectation of the aristocracy. Laces held his footwear together and by pairing them with the clothes of an every day man Jefferson sought to demonstrate that he was no better than any of the people he served. This action was also interpreted as supportive of the French who had suffered under an oppulent and oppressive regime.

As a style indicator, the Jefferson bootee could properly be termed a brogan, yet to the people of the time, the Jefferson shoe/bootee represented something more than mere footwear. It meant that President Jefferson understood that his position, coupled with his personal wealth, was powerful, and he was sensitive to the idea that his authority could be abused. This gambit was a shrewd move on Jefferson's part, designed to ease the minds of the American populace while not sacrificing anything other than his personal appearance. It also countered the ideas of French and British monarchs who believed in their divine right to rule and who went to great lengths to keep subordinates in place.

Intolerable English edicts such as the Stamp Act would be fresh in the mind of citizens watching the inauguration and those hearing of the event. The clothes and shoes Jefferson wore demonstrated that he wanted the common man as an ally, although it is likely that some perceived this as a political ploy instead of honest intent. 'Jefferson' as a footwear adjective quickly came to mean any shoe or boot that was laced as opposed to one that relied on buckles. Usage of this term ran for most of the 1800s, fading as shoes came to replace boots and bootees. The Jefferson bootee was the most common footwear item issued during the American Civil War, all four types of these brogans: hand sewn, machine stitched, hand pegged, and machine pegged remain in existence and sites selling footwear suitable for reenactment is a Google search away.

To close: it is often easy to be dismissive of events that transpired in the past. What may seem unimportant or downright silly might seem so because context has been lost as time passes. Footwear is not the be all and end all, however, hopefully some of the things presented here have provided insight into how it can be used as a tool of those who wield power and the way that fashion(s) can express the attitudes of certain individuals and groups. The country known as the United States of America owes much to the man who penned the Declaration of Independence, although as a man, Jefferson was flawed and mortal, as we all are. Today, the United States represents a land of wealth, opportunity, freedom from religious oppression, the right to gather in public, and the ability to consume your beverage of choice while wearing whatever footwear you damn well please.  

Sources:

  1. Fugawee - Images and recreations.
  2. We Make History - An interesting introduction into clothing and styles of the era.
  3. The Turner Brigade - A good read and rebuttal of data found on the Fugawee website which admits to making corrections.
  4. Image and a description of hobnailed shoes.
  5. C & D Jarnigan Company - features images of US Military issue 1851 and both sewn and pegged brogans.
  6. This site deserves mention as it reports shoe modifications done by soldiers and later adopted by the government.
  7. Image of a Regency pair of shoes. Note the unisex designation.
  8. Images - paste buckle collection, scroll down for the image of "Marie Antoinette Style" by Adrien Goetz.
  9. AmericanRevolution.org. A fascinating overview of styles worn during 1775 and 1800.
  10. Overview of some societal restrictions placed upon French citizens.
  11. A little history of red shoes. Includes royal image and is suggested reading.
  12. Article on the Jeffersonian inaguration. Also has a nice rebuttal of the idea that Jefferson rode a horse to the ceremony.
  13. Georgian paste buckle collection. Clarifies the term latchets and illustrates how buckles were stored by their owners.

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