My recent visit to the Conservation Studios at The Bowes Museum introduced me to an enchanting pair of early 18th century lady’s shoes. Unlike some of the shoes in the Museum’s own collection (particularly those of the Empress Eugenie which look too narrow ever to have been worn!) these fabric covered, heeled shoes are, though fairly small, entirely wearable. Not only that; they clearly have been worn, because their sharply pointed toes are ever so slightly rubbed. They are nevertheless in exceptionally good condition and their blazing, scarlet heels make them especially striking. So, Christian Louboutin, with your deliciously distinctive red soles… I’m afraid it looks like someone had a similar idea nearly 300 years ago!
The brocade fabric of these shoes, covering the softest of kid leather inside, is predominantly brown in colour. It is being meticulously cleaned by one of the Museum’s conservation specialists, Sophie Lane, on behalf of Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery in Carlisle. Sophie will be able to restore the brightness of the fabric just a little and repair a slightly frayed area round the top of the shoes, but the astonishingly neat stitching round the leather soles is immaculate and will not need her attention at all. What a skilful cobbler was at work all those years ago.
In due course these shoes will return to Tullie House, and with them will go an almost more remarkable survival, the little ‘overshoes’ into which they neatly slip, to protect them in case of wet weather. I had expected overshoes to be something like galoshes or some kind of boot that would cover the elegant little shoes inside completely. I couldn’t have been more wrong. These overshoes are minimalist in the extreme, being not much more than a flat leather sole, also perfectly stitched, with a couple of fabric bands that would have met with a clasp over the top of the inserted shoes, keeping them neatly in place, matching them very closely and hardly concealing them at all. That’s clever.
Neither the shoes nor their overshoes have their fastenings. That choice would, presumably, have been up to whoever wore them and may have been removed for use on other pairs at other times. I wonder what sort of buckle or ornament she, the lady who wore them, would have chosen? She had already gone for the dashing red heels, after all… And where and when did she wear such pretty shoes? Had she chosen the fabric and had them made specially to match a particular dress, perhaps? Did she go dancing in them? If so, maybe she only needed the overshoes on an occasional damp night, when she stepped from her home into a carriage, and was then conveyed to a glittering, candlelit ballroom?
We have no way of knowing. But what I love about shoes (for which I admit to a personal weakness) is that they belong to a part of one’s life and, formal, frivolous or simply practical, they are reminders of particular moments. The Bowes Museum’s Fashion & Textiles Collection is a treasure trove of such evocative pieces, and they delight me because they stimulate speculation about the people to whom they once belonged. And now, that’s odd: I’ve just realised that I find myself humming Paul Simon’s Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes. I wonder where that came from…
Blog by: Caroline Peacock, Trustee of The Bowes Museum