Shoes for the Surf: 1879-1922

bathing boots cartoon

From Mermaids: with Other Tales Piscatorial and Pictorial, Charles Henry Ross, 1886

 

At present most American ladies prefer a striped stocking to any slipper that can be devised, but now and then, when a beach is pebbly, a pretty foot is badly cut, and its owner wishes that its delicate covering had been more substantial. The French slippers have hemp soles with canvas tops and are fastened on the feet by ties matching the trimming of the dress. As a rule, an anchor is embroidered on the toe, and cork soles are placed inside. The French plates representing ladies clothed in the most approved style show these slippers fastened by means of enough cross-gartering to satisfy Malvolio himself, but this style is not likely to be adopted at American watering places. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 7 June 1879: p. 11

embroidered bathing shoe

Bathing-slippers should not be forgotten, nor their immediate purchase neglected, particularly if the shore be a frequented one, for then there will certainly be an ample store of broken glass, besides the usual sharp flints, oyster shells, and pebbles, to cut or bruise your feet. At many seaside places they may be procured, being made of plaited straw or of felt. In either case they need some embellishment, which may be given by the small expenditure of a piece of scarlet braid, and the turning of it into rosettes or bows, and sandals which cross over the foot and ankle, and are tied above it in a bow and short ends. These bathing-shoes and slippers may also be made by clever amateur hands out of felt or blanketing, or of very coarse flannel, embroidered in coarse crewel-work, and bound neatly with worsted braid. They may be soled also with a pair of cork soles, to be found everywhere, which should first be covered on both sides with flannel. Another method of making a bathing-slipper is to take a pair of old boots or shoes, cut them down to the required shape, and to cover the fronts—the only part left—with flannel to match the bathing-dress, trimming with worsted braid, and attaching sandals of the same to them, to keep up the heel. The Girl’s Own Outdoor Book, edited by Charles Peters, 1889

bathing sandals with ribbons 1903

Those who are truly thorough in this revival of an ancient mode are appearing on the beach without stockings, having their slender ankles and well-shaped calves crossed and recrossed with the canvas ribbons of their bathing sandals. Sometimes these are all white, though oftener you see gay colors looking pretty and effective against the gleaming white skin of which one gets scarcely more than a glimpse….Those who find this fad too much of an innovation compromise by wearing very thin lisle or silk stockings, so thin are they in fact that one could scarcely consider them as a real covering. The Washington [DC] Times 29 June 1902: p. 3

Although the assortment of shoes and boots is more limited, many changes may be achieved by the addition of silk laces to correspond in shade with the garment. Of course, there are the high laced boots of canvas, which are very trim and neat, finished by the silken string and tied in dainty bows; then some of our fair sisters may selected the prettily embroidered sandal with the crossed ankle ribbons that were worn many years ago, and still have a fascinating touch, particularly upon a small or well-shaped foot. Lastly, there are the plain little sandals with absolutely very little to them besides the sole and a strap to hold it on, and many of the bathers do not wear any shoes at all, but have the finest silk hosiery made to match the color of the bathing dress or its trimmings. To return for just a moment to a few suggestions regarding the hosiery, it might be well to know that some of the daintiest silken affairs worn are embroidered in small floral designs scattered at intervals and giving a touch of inconspicuous color to a dark ground, while others are woven in fine lace patterns and smart openwork stitches that reveal a hint of a white ankle peeping through the mesh. Ottumwa [IA] Tri-weekly Courier 21 June 1904: p. 2

NEW BATH SHOES

High Strapped Boots now Worn When Swimming.

Canvas lace and strap bathing boots that reach half way to the knees, are the latest novelty of the season added to the already complete list of accessories, and are particularly popular with women, because of the support they afford to the ankles, as well as for the good background they make for wearing elaborate hosiery.

Made in white, brown and black canvas with a heavy hand sewed cork sole, these new styles boots are decidedly attractive looking. The edges of the top are prettily scalloped, and the nickel buckles through which the straps pass that hold the boot in place make the fronts ornamental. If laces are used instead of straps, the boots are even prettier, with red, blue or yellow silk lacings zigzagged in diamond shapes across the front of the stockings.

These bathing boots are not lined and as a result are not warm, and the fronts are open except for the lacings or straps that do not interfere with the freedom of the muscles in swimming, while the height acts as an ankle support.

Soleless Shoes.

Many women prefer braided soleless swimming sandals, which are also new this year. They are made exactly like bed slippers with no sole and are fitted bout the foot with a draw string. They are made of white and black cotton stripes that look like shoe strings when braided into the slipper. These low bathing shoes are made with a long lap, or upper, and high sides, so that when pulled up the foot is incased to the ankle as if in a mitten. They are loosely woven and are cooler than the styles made with soles. They cost 49 cents.

Besides these novelties the old cork sole low cut style of bathing shoes in black or white duck or canvas, with one strap and buckle or lacings, are still the most popular with bathers, because of the cost. They may be purchased for from 22 to 50 cents a pair. The Washington [DC] Times 10 August 1905: p. 7

Bathing Shoes.

Bathing shoes for any member of the family may be easily and cheaply made at home, says Mothers Magazine. They are strong enough to protect the feet from the little stones on the beaches, and so light that you will hardly feel them at all. Many swimmers object to the regular bathing boots as being somewhat in the way, but these homemade ones are so very light as to cause no inconvenience. Take an old pair of stockings (if they match the bathing suit so much the better.) and cut them off just below the knee. If they come higher they are apt to hinder a swimmer’s movements. Hem the top edges and cut and buttonhole little slits all around, about one inch below the hem. Buy a pair of cork or loofah soles (or if you have an old pair of light slippers you can use the soles) and slip into the feet of the stockings, fastening them on well. Then, run a wide tape, or ribbon, if you prefer, though the slits at the top and tie around the leg, and you have a pair of really good bathing boots for no cost at all. The Oregon Daily Journal [Portland OR] 12 July 1913: p. 7 [And, Mrs Daffodil would add, of no style whatsoever.]

Brilliant Bathing Boots Please Paris

Silk on Velvet Footwear Impracticable, of Course, of It Wouldn’t Be Attractive

Paris Fashionable shoemakers are already being besieged with orders for the new bathing boots which have been the rage at the Riviera and Monte Carlo baths. These silk and velvet boots are brilliant in color, the most conspicuous being orange boots lined with purple, white lined with red, and green lined with yellow.

In accordance with the theory that whatever is fashionable must be unpractical these boots are not laced, but are of the slip-on kind, so that once in the water they are sure to slip off.

Bootmakers contend that the bathing boot must be wide and baggy around the leg, so as to permit freedom of movement, while fitting the foot like a glove, and while the impartial spectator may agree with their arguments he is obliged to doubt the practicability of the principle. Wisconsin State Journal [Madison WI] 26 March 1920: p. 10

All-Rubber Bathing Slippers

One of the surf bathing shoes made popular last Summer is made of colored rubber without fabric, and cured on a perfectly-modeled last. The stock is calendered with an imitation leather grain. The sole and vamp are of the same quality of rubber; the inner surface of the sole is faced with white rubber. The trimming strips also are of white rubber.

Evidently the shoe was not designed by a shoemaker, or the upper would have been joined with a heel seam, rather than in the center of the vamp where faulty workmanship more easily mars the appearance of the goods.

These bathing slippers are made in six different colors, in sizes from child’s No. 11 to men’s No. 11.

Rubber Soled Bathing Shoe

Another shoe for the surf that is being made for Summer swimming is of a mercerized fabric, and has light rubber sole, thick enough to keep the feet away from the pebbles of the beach, but not heavy enough to stop the wearer from having a good swim. Both Roma and American patterns are used. Some of the Roman sandals, of colored fabrics, with white straps, are fascinating. Some one-strap pumps are of red, blue, green and black fabric, and have white bindings.  Boot and Shoe Recorder 15 April 1922: p. 132

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Unless one is extraordinarily hardy, bathing boots are an essential accessory for a sea-side holiday. The beaches of Britain are stony and unforgiving, which is why we build piers. If a bather wishes to be coddled, rather than braced, they should try the south of France.

There were always controversies about the correct stockings to be worn with bathing costumes.

Some young women are bold enough to venture upon the beach in sandals to match their bathing suits but without stockings of any kind. While the idea is sensible from the swimmer’s point of view, for certainly both shoes and stockings hinder one’s movements in the water, it is not a fashion which recommends itself for use in public. The girl who likes a good swim and prefers wearing a sensible costume must enjoy the sport where spectators are few. The Washington [DC] Times 6 July 1902: p. 3

The notion from 1904 that “many of the bathers do not wear any shoes at all, but have the finest silk hosiery made to match the color of the bathing dress or its trimmings” seems an appalling waste of stockings, which would be instantly torn to pieces on beaches littered with stones and shells.

Silk stockings are not necessary for bathing unless sandals are worn. The fashion would prove too expensive for the average woman. Fine lisle thread are every bit as good and even if they last but little longer they can at any rate be more easily replaced. Open-work hose are never worn with a bathing costume.  With an all blue or red gown the stockings should be of the same shade, unless there is considerable black braiding, in which case the black hose is effective. With a black costume the stockings should be of the same color. From time to time sandals appear and for a while are thought absolutely necessary, but almost as suddenly they will be disappear and for a while will be quite forgotten. This year at least one pair has already been provided with each smart bathing suit, which looks very much as though this were a sandal season. The sandals now fashionable look much like heelless pumps, with a little strap across the instep, and if the beach is at all rough it is of inestimable service. The swimmer, of course, has no use for this little slipper, which is quite useless in deep water and only retards and renders swimming unnecessarily difficult. Los Angeles [CA] Herald 25 June 1905: p. 33

Those shell-studded beaches made cork soles seem an admirable idea. However, they, too, had their perils.

Mermaid With Cork Soles

[Salt Lake Letter in Ogden Pilot]

Writing of the lake reminds me to say, for the benefit of my Ogden sisters, be warned in time and don’t do when you go bathing as one of my lady friends did. She said the pebbles on the lake bottom hurt her feet, so she had a pair of sandals made with cork soles. She put them on and went into the water. She’s not a vain woman, but she has a pretty foot, and she showed it that day with less effort than she ever did before in her life. Her feet went up and her head (heavy, of course, with the weight of a brain that could originate cork soles for sea-bathing) went down—on somebody’s broad shoulders—or I might have been under the painful necessity of elaborating on ‘another case of strangulation from sea-water.” Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 24 September 1881: p.12

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

2 thoughts on “Shoes for the Surf: 1879-1922

  1. floodmouse

    SIlly me, I thought water shoes were only invented in the late 20th century! I had never seen water shoes for the beach when I was a kid, and only discovered some for sale in a grocery store around the year 2000. (This is what happens if you are not a follower of fashion, and buy your shoes out of a bin at the grocery store???) I’m not counting those duck shoes or puddle shoes for rainy days, but only the kind of sandals they have now with the ventilation holes to let the water in and out of the sole. Ever since I discovered water shoes, I have actually been wearing them year-round everyplace except when the snow is too deep, and now I can’t imagine how I could ever stand to wear high-top sneakers or anything else that is so tight on your feet. I like the antique water shoes you ahve pictured here with all the laces going up the ankle (a bit like gladiator sandals for water sports), but alas, I think they must have been worn more to impress people at the beach than for actual comfort.

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    1. chriswoodyard Post author

      You have obviously not spent much time around the British sea-side, particularly in the Victorian period! Bathing shoes were and (in some areas still) are utterly essential if you wish your feet not to be cut to rags. But you are correct, the papers describe ladies in fetching and impractical bathing costumes promenading on the sands, but never entering the water for fear of spoiling their pretty ensembles.

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