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Miniature shoes

The fascination with miniature shoes has its roots in ancient times. Miniature sandals have been found in Egyptian tombs, fashioned from ancient Persian pottery. The Romans had oil lamps shaped as a foot in a sandal and perfume containers as hob-nailed boots. Funeral jars kept in memory of the dearly departed were also made in the shape of boots.

In eighteenth century Europe, it was regarded the height of a shoe maker’s professional career to display the ability to recreate the shoe design in miniature with all the same details and elegance of the original models. This became a necessity for most shoemakers when a trend was formed due to the upcoming wedding of Prince Frederick Augustus, Duke of York to Frederica Charlotte Ulrica Catherina, towards the end of the century. Unfortunately Frederica was not considered highly desirable, however the Prince was infatuated by her very tiny feet. During their engagement, the prince had six pairs of miniature shoes promptly made by the royal shoemaker. During that period, newspapers were unable to report on Frederica’s physical appearance, so instead made headlines based upon her petite shoes. The media interest resulted in the production of hundreds of these miniature shoes. They became one of the most sought after fashion item of the time; they were even bought despite the size of the costumer’s feet, and rather used as pin cushions or ornament for the household.

Miniature shoe in silver brocade. 1745/1754. Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum. CC BY NC

In 1984, George du Maurier published the novel Trillby, the story of an Irish girl who goes to Paris and falls under the control of an hypnotist named Svengali. One of the girl’s eccentricities was to flash her bare foot in public, which was considered a rude custom at that time. The enormous success obtained by the novel encouraged the manufacture of miniature shoes and brought the trend within the reach of Victorians of all classes, who started to collect several object in the shape of shoes. Victorian gentlemen had shoes fashioned as gin flasks, umbrella handles, paper knives, ink wells, accessories associated with smoking and snuff taking; while women had pieces of jewellery, comb handles, bonbonnieres and needlework accessories. During nineteenth century, the popularity of all things oriental draw to the west miniature porcelain examples of the so-called ‘lotus shoes’, which could be found as keepsake in many European houses.

Ladies Bound feet 3-inch lotus shoes 'Jin Lian'. Embroidered silk upper-cloth sole. Eastern Asia & Pacific, China, Kwangchow. Courtesy of Shoes or no shoes. All rights reserved

This leads to look for the ‘material results’ the interest in feet and their size produces outside Europe. In ancient China, for instance, women’s small feet were considered a feature of beauty; foot shape and foot size were so important to become one of the standards to judge a woman’s beauty. To prevent the natural growth, the custom of binding little girl’s feet at the age of 5 was introduced by the tenth or eleventh century among upper-class court dancers, and soon became popular as a means of displaying status. Whether a woman had bound feet or not, and how she bound them, it directly affected her marriageability. To re-shape the girl’s feet, a long strip of cloth was used to bind them, breaking them off and bending them into the arch of the foot, so as to form a pair of “four-inch es golden lotuses”. This practice used to cause lifelong disabilities, but it was not until the early 20th century that foot-binding fell into disuse.

As many artifacts in museums and collections show, throughout the centuries miniature shoes became tokens of many meanings and symbolised a desire to share worldly goods; when the growth of railways allowed travel to resorts, souvenirs, often made as miniature shoes, were collected. Made in a wider variety of materials such as leather, wood and brass, when the emergence of porcelain brought the fashion to aristocratic circles, elegant and expensive porcelain or enamel versions were exchanged. Today modern, ornamental shoes made from porcelain or resin have become a collectable, proving again the glamorous appeal of these fanciful and little objects.

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