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The History of American Footwear

America’s love affair with footwear dates way back. We decided to look at how shoe trends throughout the 20th century helped to both symbolize and shape American culture.

Ruby Slippers

L. Frank Baum’s book The Wizard of Oz initially described Dorothy’s shoes as silver; it was screenwriter Noel Langley who made the decision to recast them as ruby, which sounded more precious and would pop more against the yellow brick road. After the film debuted in 1939, it launched red as the new “It” color.

Flats and Loafers

Audrey Hepburn’s turn in Funny Face in 1957 shined the spotlight on her black suede slip-on loafers (designed by Salvatore Ferragamo); flats soon became her signature shoe. The shoes represented the influence of beatnik style. The fresh-faced actress originally rejected the white socks director Stanley Donen wanted her to wear with the shoes during the film’s famous dance sequence. After she saw the movie for the first time, she sent him a note that read, “You were right about the socks. Love, Audrey.”

Go-Go Boots

Before the 1960s, boots were ankle height and considered unfashionable. But designers such as Britain’s Mary Quant paired mini skirts with bright, shiny boots that were an integral part of the ensemble.

Femme Fatale Pumps

Lana Turner’s memorable entrance in white open-toe pumps (again, designed by Ferragamo) is a good example of what popularized the slinky 1940s heel. Records show actresses Shelley Winters, Marilyn Monroe, and many other American women referred to these sexy pumps with racy nicknames, underscoring their femme fatale nature.

Casual Sneakers

The flat-shoe trend that Audrey Hepburn popularized also paved the way for casual sneakers like Keds, Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars, and Vans, especially with beatniks, rock-and-roll types, and the West Coast surfer dudes. By May 1962, sneaker sales jumped to 150 million pairs a year compared to 35 million pairs a year during the previous decade. Where did they get the name? A New York advertising executive first described tennis shoes as “sneakers” because their quiet soles allowed wearers to “sneak up” on their friends, according to Bergstein.

Cork Wedges

Ferragamo again! This Italian footwear legend—who dressed some of Hollywood’s most famous feet starting in the 1920s—took a hit during World War II, when the supply due to wartime manufacturing needs was short. Ferragamo’s solution: Fill in the space between the ball and the heel with Sardinian cork! The shoes, called “lefties” or “wedgies,” became very popular in the United States, especially because they were easy to walk in, and they have come back in style again.

Platform Shoes

Outrageous platform heels were the 1970s trademark footwear and for the first time in the twentieth century, men’s and women’s footwear options were strikingly similar. Many young men started experimenting with platforms, as represented by Travolta’s Tony Manero in the disco classic Saturday Night Fever.


Skinny-heeled shoes (from such designers as Roger Vivier) flourished after World War II – when women were ready to embrace femininity once again.

Doc Martens

Doc Martens hit mainsteam American after they were popularized in the mid-80s and early 90s by grunge rock-types in the U.S. Northwest, but the famous boot was created in 1960 by Dr. Klaus Maertens, a German soldier on leave from the battlefield. In the late 60s, steel-toed Doc Martens were deemed “offensive weapons” and British football fans were banned from wearing them to games.

Mary Janes

In the early 90s, the Mary Jane made a big-screen splash. Clueless’s costume designer Mona May’s modern take on innocent schoolgirl style became quite popular among the youth.

Choos and Louboutins

Jimmy Choo’s first big-name client was Princess Diana, who began wearing his shoes during public appearances in 1996 while still married to Prince Charles. As for Louboutin’s signature red bottoms? As the story goes, it all started when Louboutin observed an assistant painting her nails red and thought the color would look beautiful on the underside of his shoes.

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