Jessamyn's Regency Costume Companion: Florentine gown

The Shoes.

Pattern Drafting

In a new page on my Florentine gent's diary, I've written up some of my ideas about shoes, some of which I'll reiterate and add to here.

As I've mentioned before, I wish that more costume diaries went into detail - any detail - about hair, makeup, stockings, shoes...all the unglamorous but necessary, often frustrating details that can make or break a costume. And shoes are probably the weakest point of most of our costumes. Let's face it, no matter how accomplished we may become as tailors or seamstresses, cobbling is a whole different ballgame. And paying someone else to do that work can be very, very expensive.

So, one way or another, we usually compromise. I'm no different! With time crunches invariably driving my costuming, the shoes often fall to the bottom of the costuming to-do list anyway.

When I wore this outfit for the indoor dance performance in March, I didn't have time to do anything about my shoes. What they should look like are the ones shown in the fresco detail above, of an unkown artist's Outdoor Concert (sorry about the low resolution - there are so few Italian images wherein the feet can be seen!). What I, in fact, wore were the ghillies I use for Scottish country dancing, like these. Although they're certainly wrong for this costume, they are unobtrusive with dark stockings, have a handmade quality, and are very comfortable for dancing.

The Renaissance Faire, on the other hand, is going to be outdoors on a very sloping, lumpy lawn, and I really don't want to ruin my nice indoor dance shoes by wearing them there. I probably won't have time to do anything more than fall back on the old, reliable "kung-fu shoes," which at least have a shape that isn't too awfully far from period ones, and they don't scream "modern."

Eventually, though, I would really like to make a pair that match the illustrations. They wouldn't be welted, vegetable-tanned, properly cobbled shoes like the ones Marc Carlson explains how to make, but I have some remants of soft beige leather I got from the local Foam & Fabric outlet and I'd like to make what I think of as "cheater turnshoes." I made a pair of these in a workshop once. You make a pattern by tracing your foot onto muslin, and then draping two other pieces of muslin around your foot until you get something about the right shape. You then cut the pieces out of relatively thin leather, sew them right sides together on a sturdy machine, and turn them right-side out. They're not terribly sturdy, but they look moderately convincing and can be made more comfortable with modern insoles.

Below are two views of a 1530-45 shoe in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Although it's earlier than my period, it shows a flimsy turnshoe similar in look and weight to what my cheater method produces.

Marc Carlson offers a pattern for a shoe from the Mary Rose that looks very similar to my favorite shoes from The Outdoor Concert, the ones on the right. This extant shoe in the Metropolitan Museum of Art belongs to the earlier "bear claw" style, but is a great example of slashing, and is also nice because you can see inside it to some degree.

Rather than taking a pattern off my foot, I might take it off an old pair of ghillies instead. Although the ghillie pieces are assembled completely wrong for the 16th century (with center seams rather than side seams), they're broken in to the shape of my feet and may be very helpful. They're also simply glued to their soles, which might make them easy to take apart (in my experience, sooner or later they come apart by themselves!).

May 20, 2004: Patterning and Mocking Up

I began my shoemaking process by tracing my besocked right foot on a piece of paper, tilting the pencil as much as possible so as to get the outline of only that part of my foot that actually contacts the ground. I also put as much weight as I could on the foot, so it was as spread out as it ever gets.

I also traced the sole of my newest pair of ghillies, which took probably eight or ten wearings to break in fully but are now the best-fitting ones I've ever had. There are several lessons I've learned from wearing ghillies that I think will apply to the type of shoe I'm trying to make here. One is that while too small is bad (ouch!), too large is bad, too: a shoe that fits anything other than snugly will move around on the foot, creating blisters, pulling painfully at ankles or toes - and looks bad, too. As you can see by the photo of my ghillie below, the sole size is misleading, because the leather upper curves out quite a bit past the edges - to accommodate the part of the foot that is wider than the sole but doesn't actually touch the ground. (Note that the sole shape is distorted in the ghillie photo because the toe is closer to the camera than the heel. And no, I don't have size-five feet - only in ghillies, which have strange sizing! I'm over 5'8". I wear eights!)

The third picture above compares my foot outline with the ghillie sole. Obviously, my feet are wider in the toe region than the ghillies, and it was the stretching-out of the soft upper leather in these areas that constituted the "breaking in" I referred to earlier. I don't want to have to break my new shoes in much, so I'm going to make the toebox a little bigger. Not too much, though - I still want the shoe to keep my toes snugly together, just not to pinch. On the other hand, there are a few places where my foot is actually narrower than the ghillie, around the heel (no surprise to me - pumps have always tried to fall off the back of my foot). This is also borne out by the wear pattern on the bottom of my ghillie (see photo above), which doesn't extend to the edges of the heel.

Further complicating things is that like most people, I have one foot that's larger than the other - in my case, the left. So I took another tracing, this time of my left foot, flipped the left over, and compared. The shaded area in the photo below is the left showing around the edges of the right. For each foot, I combined the foot outline with the ghillie sole to create new, revised soles individual to each foot:

Next, I needed a pattern for the upper. This I created by the simple expedient of pressing a piece of paper down over the front of my foot, tucking it down around it as smoothly as possible, and drawing around the edge where it met the floor. I trued this up a bit and then repeated my efforts with a simple strip around the back of my heel.

With chalk, I traced my new pattern pieces onto some scrap felt and cut them out, leaving a seam allowance. I pinned the front upper to the sole and stitched it on the machine.

I also pinned the back upper to the sole, stitched it on, trimmed the seams, and turned the whole thing right-side-out. After further trimming the front into a curve similar to that of the Mary Rose shoe, and pinning the front to the back at a revised seam line, I wound up with the following, really fairly convincing-looking shoe:

The white dots on the shoe are the heads of the pins holding the sides together. Please excuse the blobs higher-up, which are camera artefacts.

After wearing this around the house for a while just to see how it would hold up, I was impressed with how comfortable it was. I only hope the leather goes together half as well. I think I will probably add a felt insole to the shoe, because it really is nicely cushy.

Also, I will probably need to use quite soft leather in order to sew and turn the shoe with this method, so I'm thinking that I will try glueing a heavier leather sole to the bottom of the turnsole. I believe there's some precedent for this, historically, although I admit that all the stuff I've read on making period and periodish shoes is starting to blur together at this point!

June 7, 2004: Period Perforations

Well, I cut my uppers and soles (which may become insoles eventually) from leather. There are lots of examples of white or beige women's shoes from the second half of the 16th century, especially white suede; however, a less practical choice there is not. My compromise is a sort of bone-colored smooth leather with a suede back. I think the beigey color will be good with the golden-tan guard on my kirtle, and the smooth leather won't be ruined in two seconds of dirt like the suede would.

I cut the soles from the brown suede because I thought it would give a nice walking surface, the brown won't show dirt, and I was running out of the bone-colored leather!

Most of the fashionable shoes in portraits are pinked, and I wanted to do this too. There are examples of extant shoes with merely a few slashes, and others with elaborate designs. The ones in the fresco at the top of this page are rather blurry, but appear to have a sort of medium degree of pinking.

There are two extant ladies' pinked leather shoes of which I'm aware from the latter half of the 16th century. The style of the shoe itself is wrong for me because they are both from the very tail end of the century, but the quality of the leather and pinking are very interesting. The one on the right is similar to mine in construction, and the one on the left has a simpler pattern that gives a general impression not unlike those of the fresco ladies. (You can click through the one on the right only to view a larger image.)

A ca.-1600 shoe from the V&A; a shoe from the Deutsches Ledermuseum, ca. 1590-1600. Both white suede.

Taking inspiration from the left-hand pinking design, I worked one out on my upper pattern. I've only done the front upper, not the back. I tried several methods for cutting the pattern through the leather; in period it would have been done with little chisels, and that would be ideal, but I don't have the right thing. Eventually I wound up using a utility knife (boxcutter) to cut through the paper pattern and the leather. Be sure to put the leather on a piece of scrap cardboard or something first!

The cuts from the utility knife were so clean and perfect, they practically disappeared. Cuts from a chisel cause a lot more damage to the leather and therefore are more obvious. I wound up going over all my cuts with the knife to widen and fluff them a bit. So here's what I have so far:

I may need to abuse the cuts a bit more to get the effect I want, but they're better in person than on camera, which washes them out.

August 10, 2004: Looking Like a Shoe

I still wasn't entirely happy with my utility-knife cuts, so I got hold of a chisel and tried that on the second upper. I found that hitting it with a hammer actually didn't work as well as just pressing down and rocking slightly. It just sort of crunches through the leather (leather this thin and supple, anyway). It's still moderately hard work, though. I also had to make sure I wasn't running with the grain of the pine board I was using as a backing, or the pine would squash down into a groove instead of the leather separating. Anyway, it does do a slightly better job of making cuts you can really see.

Then I stitched the shoe pieces to the sole, and trimmed the seams very, very close. I should have pinked the back piece before I sewed it on, but I was really impatient to see it after this long delay and I can still chisel the pattern while it's sewed to the shoe. The front upper is not sewn to the back upper yet, which makes it more doable to fold the sole back and lay the back piece on my board for cutting. Still silly, I know. But doesn't it look neat?

I'm still thinking about cutting the throat of the shoe down a little, which is why the design doesn't extend all the way up. I also am thinking about edging it with something to make it look a little more finished.

I'm also going around in circles about backing the leather. The long, straight cuts on the original shoe shown above must just be scores that don't go all the way through, because that shoe doesn't seem to be lined and yet the cuts aren't opening up the way they want to on my shoe. It's not bad when it's just sitting there, but the stresses increase when it's on my foot. I didn't cut the longest of the straight cuts all the way through - they have a merely scored connector bit in the middle - but the leather still tends to pull and gap slightly. On the other hand, I don't want to eliminate the shoe's ability to stretch comfortably around my foot, but I also don't have room for another layer of leather; it's a very close fit already.

I can either a) just ignore it, as it's not terrible, or b) try lining it with bias fabric. I'm not sure yet what I'll do.

October 10, 2004: Pinked Throughout

September was a crazy month around here - Asheville flooded twice from the hurricanes, and although my house is well above the flood plain, the roof proved to have a leak, and the city water supply was unavailable for about a week! Between that and a Halloween commission, I just haven't had the time I wanted for these projects.

But I have finally made some more progress on these shoes. I pinked the back section (it definitely would have been easier if I hadn't attached it to the sole first, but I also might have misjudged where the center back would be, so maybe it's just as well). I also did line the front section with a bit of the burgundy habotai silk left over from my gown lining. It didn't make any difference to the shoe's tendency to pull at the pinks, but it does add a nice little shadow of color to them, so what the hey.

I think if I really wanted to avoid this pulling, I would have to either eliminate the pinks along the inside of my foot (meaning, redo the shoes), or line them with another layer of leather rather than thin silk (meaning, redo them, cutting them slightly larger to accommodate the space the extra leather would take up). To me it's not worth it, and in fact the slight pulling does emphasize the pinks, so maybe it's almost a good thing.

You can just make out the lining sticking above the top edge of the shoe, which I have trimmed back slightly from the previous pictures. I haven't lined the back yet, and I also still haven't attached the back to the front, so it's gapping slightly. Sorry about the funny shadows; it's hard to take good pictures of one's own feet!

Oh, I also bought a roll of cork at Lowe's to try soling the shoes with. I guess I'll experiment with glueing a bit to some scrap leather first. It's pretty thin cork, so I'll probably need to build up more than one layer.

November 22, 2004: Twice as Nice

The problem with doing things that come in pairs is that the second whatever-it-is is almost as much work as the first, but there's nothing exciting about it. Unless something goes wrong, it turns out looking exactly like you knew it would!

That said, it is nice having a pair!

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Copyright 2004 by David and Jessamyn Reeves-Brown. All rights reserved.