Each month, we’ll be revealing the history of a different fashion accessory in the museum’s collections, to complement our new exhibition Completing the Look: 300 Years of Fashion Accessories. This month: shoe buckles!
In 1891, a collection of shoe buckles was donated to the museum by a pair of brothers who ran a drapery business in Stansted. The collection comprised 78 shoe buckles dating from the 1700s. Two of these shoe buckles are on display in our current exhibition, Completing the Look: 300 Years of Fashion Accessories.
One of the earliest examples of a shoe buckle is shown on a brass rubbing of Robert Attelath, who was the mayor of Lynn (now King’s Lynn), and who died in 1376. In the image, his shoes are fastened with what many historians consider to be a buckle. Buckles were an especially common sight from the 1600s until the end of the 1700s.
Early buckles from around the 1670s were simple and practical. They were rarely bigger than 5cm across and the decoration was pressed or moulded onto the small frame. However, by the 1720s buckles were becoming more and more elaborate, and they became a status symbol. They were worn by men, women and children and by all but the very poorest people. A glance at a person’s feet would give you a good idea of their social class. The nobility would wear shoe buckles set with paste gems and occasionally made from gold but the ordinary man was more likely to wear buckles made from brass or steel.
Birmingham and the surrounding area was the centre of shoe buckle manufacture. The invention of a stamping machine allowed buckles to be mass-produced and the development of a new plating technique in 1778 meant that an estimated 2.5 million pairs were being manufactured each year in the 1780s. About 4000 people worked in the buckle trade in Birmingham, and the average price paid for a pair of buckles was 2s 6d.
Unfortunately, shoe buckles were a relatively short-lived fashion. As men began to wear long trousers that covered shoes and women began to favour flat shoes that were too delicate for large heavy buckles, the trade declined quickly at the end of the 1700s. By 1791, the shoe buckle makers of Birmingham, Walsall and Wolverhampton petitioned the Prince of Wales (later George IV) to wear buckles again. The prince sympathised with their plight and he and his household once again became buckle-wearers. However, his influence was not sufficient to influence fashion, and shoe buckles became a thing of the past.
See Georgian shoes and shoe buckles in Completing the Look: 300 Years of Fashion Accessories at Saffron Walden Museum until 30 July 2017.