Why are these shoes called Mary-Janes?

I’m beginning to learn that in life, everyone has a ‘type’. Whether it’s the type of people that you’re attracted to, the type of clothes you like to wear, the books, movies and music that you like. Everyone has a ‘type’, and that is also true of footwear.

One of Shih Yen’s favourite pair of Mary-Janes shoes, by Camper from their TWS range.

So yes, I have a type when it comes to footwear, and my type is called Mary-Janes. ‘Mary-Jane’ is an American word for a shoe with a strap across the front. One of my earliest memories from when I was 4 years old was of wearing pink Mary-Jane style shoes with a buckle to fasten the strap. I had known for some time that this type of shoe is called Mary-Jane, but until recently, I didn’t know why.

An old Mary-Jane favourite of Shih Yen’s, by Candy.

Recently, I found out why these shoes are called ‘Mary-Janes’ (and it has nothing to do with marijuana!). It’s related to a comic strip by Richard Felton Outcault called Buster Brown, first published in 1902. The Buster Brown character was a 19th century boy who was always getting into trouble. In 1904, Outcault sold licences at the St. Louis World’s Fair for companies to use the Buster Brown character to advertise their products. The Brown Shoe Company was probably the first company to use trademark to sell shoes, when they used the Buster Brown character to sell children’s shoes.

Buster Brown and Mary Jane with Tige the dog, characters by Richard Felton Outcault. Both characters are wearing Mary-Jane shoes.

In the comic strip, Buster Brown had a girlfriend called Mary-Jane. Mary-Jane was based on Outcault’s own daughter who was also named Mary-Jane. In about 1909, Mary-Jane, the character from the comic strip, was used to market girls’ shoes. It was so successful that all shoes of this design, with a strap across, became known as ‘Mary-Janes’. Mary-Jane was formerly a registered trademark, but is now a generic term for all shoes of this design.

In the comic strip, both Buster Brown and Mary-Jane wear Mary-Jane style shoes. In the past, Mary-Janes were worn by both boys and girls. But by the 1930s and 1940s, the Mary-Jane style became predominantly associated with girls shoes.

A new Mary-Jane favourite, by Hot Chocolate Design.

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Fashion and footwear from the Victorian era

The Victorian era was a period in time from the years 1837 – 1901. It was called the Victorian era because this was when Queen Victoria was in power in the United Kingdom. She became queen in 1837 and reigned until her death on 22 January 1901.

Fashion during the Victorian era was quite conservative, and covered the entire body for both men and women. Dresses for women were long. Only young girls could wear short skirts or short dresses, and the hemlines lengthened as the girl grew older.

Both men and women wore hats and gloves when outdoors. Hats that were popular among Victorian women were bonnets and straw hats. Hats could be big, and over the top, trimmed with feathers, flowers and ribbons. Sometimes, a hat could even feature a stuffed bird. Many birds were slaughtered during the Victorian period to provide decoration for hats.

This woman wears a hoop skirt, gloves and hat trimmed with feathers, fashion from the Victorian era. The penny-farthing bicycle was a type of bicycle that was popular during the Victorian period.

This woman wears a hoop skirt, gloves and hat trimmed with feathers, fashion from the Victorian era. The penny-farthing bicycle on the left was a type of bicycle that was popular during the Victorian period.

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Bonnets were also popular with women during the Victorian era.

Something that was very popular among women in the Victorian era was crinoline, or also called the hoop skirt. It was a type of petticoat, and as the name suggests, the skirt is made up of hoops to give the dress or skirt its huge shape and volume. The hoops could be made of stiff fabric, whale bone or steel wire. These hoops gave the skirt the shape of a round bird cage. Hoop skirts were totally impractical, with some skirts wider than the woman’s height. They made walking through narrow doorways and sitting down difficult. But hoop skirts were very fashionable during the Victorian era among women of all social classes.

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During the Victorian era, women’s hats were big, and their hoop skirts even bigger.

Compared with the impractical hoop skirt, footwear for both men and women in the Victorian era was relatively more practical. It was at the start of the Victorian era that shoes started to be made for the left and right foot. Previously, shoes could be worn interchangeably on either foot. Footwear that was popular in the Victorian period were leather boots. These could be in the style of lace-up boots or button boots with low heels, which were quite practical. However, just like the hats and hoop skirts, Victorian dress shoes could be over the top as well. Shoes could be made of material such as silk, satin and suede, and they could be embroidered and dyed. Shoe could be decorated with bows, buckles, gemstones, lace and artificial flowers.

These satin shoes date from around 1840

These satin shoes date from around 1840 and belonged to Queen Victoria. They are lined with white kid and have leather soles.

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Close up of Victorian dress shoes, with low heels and lots of embellishments.

A display of Victorian shoes.

A display of Victorian shoes.

Fashion and footwear from the 1950s

I am interested in what people wore in the past, so this month I am writing about fashion and footwear from the 1950s. I have been wanting to write this post for ages, and now that I have finally got around to it, it has turned out to be a much longer post than I expected.

Rock and roll was a style of music that was popular in the 1950s. Rock and roll dance was also very popular in the 1950s. During this decade, women wore big, full skirts for rock and roll dance, and the skirts would swing and flare out when they were dancing. It was very common for these skirts to have an appliqué french poodle on them, earning the skirts the name poodle skirt. There were other appliqué designs, but the poodle design was most popular. Women wore these skirts with a cardigan, often matching the colour of their skirt. It was also fashionable in the 1950s for women to wear a belted dress that had a pleated skirt.

1950s

This woman wears a belted dress that has a collar and pleated skirt, with low heeled peep-toe shoes; all were common styles in the 1950s.

Even glasses from this era had a distinctive style. Horn-rimmed glasses, which are glasses with big, black frames were popular in the 1950s, and worn by both men and women. These glasses were known as Buddy Holly glasses, named after Buddy Holly because he wore glasses in this style. Buddy Holly was a popular American singer in the 1950s, and considered one of the main figures of rock and roll in the mid-1950s. Horn-rimmed glasses have been around since the early 1900s. Originally, they were made out of real horn or tortoise shell, but by the 1950s when they were extremely popular, they were made of plastic, which was stronger. A variant of the horn-rimmed glasses was the browline glasses. These were glasses that had plastic brows only on the tops of glasses, rather than all the way around like horn-rimmed glasses. Browline glasses were also hugely popular in the 1950s. Another style of glasses that was popular in the 1950s was cat eye glasses. These are glasses that curve up at the sides, like a cat’s eye. Cat eye glasses were mostly worn by women, though some men wore them too in the 1950s.

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This woman wears a poodle skirt with cardigan, and browline cat eye glasses in a tortoise shell style – all quintessential fashion of the 1950s.

In terms of footwear, the defining footwear style of the 1950s was saddle shoes. Saddle shoes are low-heel, lace-up leather shoes in two colours, most commonly black and white; though any colour combination is possible. There are called saddle shoes because there is a saddle-shaped panel in the middle of the shoe, in a different colour from the rest of the shoe. Both men and women wore saddle shoes. Elvis Presley famously wore them in the 1950s. Women in the 1950s wore saddle shoes with poodle skirts and white, loose bobby socks.

saddle shoe

Replica of saddle shoes, which were worn by both men and women in the 1950s. The most common colours for saddle shoes were black and white.

Sling back sandals and peep toe styles were also popular with women in the 1950s. The following are a couple of women’s evening shoes from the 1950s.

1950s peeptoe

Red satin and gold leather peeptoe shoe from the 1950s, by Frank Brothers, Chicago and New York.

1950s rear peeptoe

Rear view of the 1950s red satin shoe by Frank Brothers, which has painted gold leather heel and sole.

1950s slingback

A gold satin slingback sandal with bronze and pearl beading, from the late 1950s.

1950s slingback rear

Rear view of the 1950s gold satin slingback sandal.

Fashion and Footwear from the 1970s

It seems that platform shoes and chunky heels are back in fashion again. This style was huge in the 1970s. So I thought I would write about fashion and footwear from the disco decade, the 1970s.

Flared trousers were in fashion in the 1970s for both men and women. This style of trousers are also called bell bottoms, because the bottoms of these trousers flared out from the knee, kind of like the shape of a bell. In the 1970s both men and women wore shirts with big, pointed collars. Synthetic fabrics like polyester and rayon were popular in the 1970s. Think: John Travolta wearing his white polyester suit in ‘Saturday Night Fever’.

A party in East Malaysia in 1971. Note the shirt with oversized collar, and also the short mini dresses worn by the women. The footwear for women consisted of low, chunky heels.

A party in East Malaysia in 1971. Note the shirt with oversized collar, and also the short mini dresses worn by the women. The footwear for women consisted of low, chunky heels.

For women, mini skirts and short mini dresses were fashionable in the 1970s. Loose and flowing caftans were also popular among women. There were many different hairstyles that were popular in this decade. Both men and women sported afros. The Farrah Fawcett look was ‘in’. This was the hairstyle popularized by Farrah Fawcett in her role on the 1970s TV show ‘Charlie’s Angels’. This hairstyle featured wavy curls and flicks of the hair out to the side. Another hairstyle popular with women in the 1970s was long, straight hair worn with a centre part.

Shih Yen wears 1970s-style metallic gold high heels, part of her costume for a stage musical set in Vietnam in the mid-1970s.

Shih Yen wears 1970s-style metallic gold high heels, part of her costume for a stage musical set in Vietnam in the mid-1970s.

Some time ago I was a cast member in a stage musical set in Vietnam in the mid-1970s (no prizes for guessing which musical this is). I had 3 pairs of stage shoes for the musical; all the shoes were 1 or 2 sizes too small for me and made my feet hurt terribly. There were 2 pairs of shoes in gold. Metallic colours for footwear were quite big in the 1970s. There was also a pair of flat black canvas shoes. In the musical, these were worn by Viet Cong guerrillas. I have looked at old photos of the Viet Cong from that era and they actually fought in sandals that looked a bit like low Roman sandals.

Shih Yen's stage shoes on hideous carpet in the dressing room. These shoes were supposed to be from the mid-1970s, featuring metallic gold shoes. The flat, black canvas shoes in the middle were meant to be worn by the Viet Cong army.

Shih Yen’s stage shoes on hideous carpet in the dressing room. These shoes were supposed to be from the mid-1970s, featuring metallic gold shoes. The flat, black canvas shoes in the middle were meant to be worn by the Viet Cong army.

Quite apart from guerrilla warfare and the Vietnam War, the most distinctive style of shoe from the 1970s was without doubt the platform shoe. Platform shoes have thick, high elevated soles that can add 3 – 4 inches to a person’s height. Chunky heels were also in fashion in the 1970s. Both these styles made a comeback in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Think: footwear worn by some of the Spice Girls. And now platform shoes and chunky heels seem to be making another comeback.

In this photo from the mid-1970s, the woman wears a short mini-dress with chunky platform shoes, common fashion of that time.

In this photo from the mid-1970s, the woman has a 1970s perm and wears a short mini-dress with chunky platform shoes, common fashion of that time.

Uighur Food and Footwear

Yesterday was the first day of the Chinese New Year. So, I thought I would write about something Chinese. Well, about the Uighur people (also spelt Uyghur, Uygur or Uigur) who are ethnic minorities in China.

The Uighurs are found mostly in Xinjiang Autonomous Region, in the northwest of China. They speak a Turkic language and are mainly Muslim. The Uighurs have more in common with their neighbours in Central Asia, such as in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, compared with the Chinese.

Even though I am Chinese (from Malaysia), I really don’t know much about Northern China, and I know even less about the Uighurs. My ancestors were all from the southern areas of China, where people speak, dress and eat differently from the northerners.

I have recently discovered Uighur food and it is very unique and different from Southern Chinese cuisine. In the south of China, rice is the staple, whereas for the Uighurs, noodles, bread and dumplings are more common. They do eat rice, but the rice is spiced with cumin and contain raisins. I found Uighur food quite oily, and yoghurt was served with rice to balance the oiliness of the food. I also enjoyed handmade Uighur noodles, which are wider than any other noodles I have eaten before. The noodle dish was oily with a red oil, and spicy with whole chillies AND chilli flakes.

Xinjiang-style noodles, featuring wide handmade noodles with braised chicken and potato, whole chillies and chilli flakes.

Xinjiang-style noodles, featuring wide handmade noodles with braised chicken and potato, and lots of chillies.

To be honest, I only became interested in Uighur food and culture because I fell in love with a pair of antique Uighur boots, which was part of a museum exhibition on ethnic minorities in China. These knee-length Uighur boots are made of leather, wool and silk and come from Hetian, Xinjiang Autonomous Region. They were such beautiful boots with bright, intricate embroidery. I would visit the museum exhibition just to look at that pair of boots. They drew me like a magnet and sparked my interest in Uighur culture.

A pair of Uighur boots dating from 1840 - 1949 from Hetian, Xinjian Uighur Autonomous Region. These boots are made of leather, wool and silk.

A pair of Uighur boots dating from 1840 – 1949 from Hetian, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. These boots are made of leather, wool and silk.

Fashion and footwear from the 1920s

With the release of the movie ‘The Great Gatsby’ (directed by Baz Luhrmann, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire and Carey Mulligan), I feel like reviewing the fashion and footwear of the 1920s. The movie is an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel ‘The Great Gatsby’, a classic and regarded as a Great American Novel. The novel is set in Long Island, New York in 1922, an era known as the Roaring Twenties. The Roaring Twenties was characterized by affluence, jazz music, art-deco architecture and also criminal activity like bootleg alcohol and smuggling. Al Capone was one of the notorious criminals of that time.

In terms of fashion for men in the 1920s, men wore suits, ties and hats. Pinstripe suits with silk ties were very popular during that era. To finish the look, men had handkerchiefs peeking out of the breast pocket of their suits, or wore a boutonnière, which is a flower in the buttonhole of their lapel. Hats that were fashionable for men in the 1920s were straw boaters and fedora or homburg hats. Fedora and homburg hats look similar and are associated with the 1920s gangster look.

The 1920s was a time of more freedom for women. The Roaring Twenties gave rise to flapper culture. Flapper was a term for a young woman in the 1920s who was more liberated than earlier generations and could vote and drive. She wore makeup, had short hair and wore dresses and skirts with shorter hemlines.

The Roaring Twenties was characterized by increased organized criminal activity, and also more freedom for women, like the ability to drive. Note the bare arms and dropped waistline of this flapper-style dress.

The Roaring Twenties was characterized by increased organized criminal activity, and also more freedom for women, like the ability to drive. Note the feathered headband, bare arms and dropped waistline of this flapper-style dress. The man wears a pinstripe suit with silk tie and fedora hat.

Cloche hats that were bell-shaped (cloche is French for bell) and closely fitted the head were popular with 1920s women. It was only possible to wear this type of hat with short hair. Hence, short hairstyles, especially bobs, were in vogue with flappers.

In women’s fashion, flapper dresses were straight and loose with dropped waists. A straight and boyish silhouette was preferred. Flappers did not wear tight corsets of previous generations. Bare arms were common and hemlines were shorter than earlier generations, about knee-length. All this made it easier for flappers to dance. The Charleston was an extremely popular dance in the 1920s and involved swaying arms and kicking up of heels. For 1920s evening wear, flapper dresses had tassels or fringes, especially at the hem, and these would swing when the wearer danced. Flappers smoked, drank and danced. Long cigarette holders are associated with this era. Fabrics with metallic details, beads, lace and sequins were popular in the 1920s, especially for evening wear. Fur was also in. Flappers accessorized with long strands of pears or beaded necklaces. Accessories with feathers like feather boas or feathered headbands were also fashionable. Headbands, turbans and sequin caps were all fashionable in the Roaring Twenties.

An example of 1920s fashion. The woman has a short bob haircut typical of that period. Note also the woman's accessories like feathered headband, feather boa, long strands of pearls and a long stem cigarette holder.

An example of 1920s fashion. The woman has a short bob haircut typical of that period. Note also the woman’s accessories like feathered headband, feather boa, long strands of pearls and a long stem cigarette holder.

In terms of women’s footwear in the 1920s, the characteristics of shoes from that period were a Mary Jane or T-Bar strap with Louis XV heels. The Mary Jane or T-Bar straps were fastened with a button or a buckle. The high heels were not very high, about 2 – 3 inches or 5 – 8cm in height. Shoes from the 1920s had what is known as Louis XV heels. These are thick heels that curve outward at the bottom. They are named after the French King Louis XV. This type of heel was worn during the reign of Louis XV (1715 – 1774), back when men wore high heels.

A pair of gold embossed evening shoes from the mid-1920s. This pair was made in England and feature the buttoned strap and Louise XV heels characteristic of shoes from the 1920s.

A pair of gold embossed evening shoes from the mid-1920s. This pair was made in England and feature the Mary Jane buttoned strap and Louise XV heels characteristic of shoes from the 1920s.

Chinese foot binding (缠足) and lotus shoes

Last month, I wrote about huge, gigantic feet. This month, I am writing about the opposite – super tiny feet. Humans suffer a lot of pain for the sake of beauty. I just think of all the pain and blisters I have had from wearing uncomfortable shoes or from stuffing my feet into too-small shoes. This is nothing compared to the old practice of Chinese foot binding. Since Chinese new year is on 10th February this year, I thought I would write about the ancient Chinese practice of foot binding and the special shoes that women with bound feet have to wear.

I feel a connection to this practice as my maternal great-great grandmother, who was born in the 1870s, had bound feet. Personally, I think it’s ironic that my great-great grandmother had tiny bound feet, but in just a few generations, my unbound feet have grown so large that I struggle to find women’s shoes in Asia.

The Chinese custom of foot binding began in the tenth century. Foot binding was widespread during the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD) and continued for another 1000 years. Foot binding started for little girls when they were aged between 2 – 5 years old. Little girls’ feet were tightly bound with long pieces of cloth bandages to stop their growth. This practice was excruciatingly painful because it deliberately broke the girls’ toes and the arch of their foot. Girls and women with bound feet would never be able to run and could hardly walk. Instead, bound feet forced them to totter around, a walk that was considered attractive.

A replica of a Chinese woman with bound feet.

A replica of a Chinese woman with bound feet.

In January, I wrote about Robert Wadlow whose super huge feet was a hazard to his health and contributed to his death. Similarly, Chinese women with bound feet also had to be careful as they could suffer deadly infections from foot binding. The cloths that bound the feet had to be changed and washed regularly to prevent infections. For the rich, this was done once a day. For poorer people, this would happen 2 or 3 times a week. It was done by either a professional foot binder (yes, that occupation actually existed in the past!) or by an elder female relative. Apart from infections, other problems included rotting flesh in the feet and the stink associated with that.

Foot binding was a status symbol. It was a symbol of beauty, wealth, elegance and even sexuality. Chinese women who wanted to marry well or into money had to have bound feet as Chinese men did not want to marry women with large feet. Families who could bind the feet of their daughters were seen as rich as this meant they could afford servants, since daughters with bound feet would never be able to work and would need help to move around.

The ideal goal in foot binding was to have feet as small as 3 inches (7.6cm) long. These were called ‘golden lotus’ feet because the tiny feet resembled a lotus bud. Feet that were 4 inches (10cm) long were also acceptable and these were called silver lotus. Women with bound feet wore special shoes called ‘three inch golden lotus shoes’ (三寸金蓮鞋). These shoes were specially made, generally made of fabric, such as silk with cotton soles, and always beautifully embroidered.

These are not baby shoes, but shoes for women with bound feet.

These are not baby shoes, but shoes for women with bound feet. Close-up of a pair of golden lotus shoes.

There were various attempts to ban foot binding in the 1800s and early 1900s, though they were not very successful. This practice took years to die out. The last factory in China that made shoes for bound feet finally closed in the late 1990s because there was no longer any demand for the shoes as women with bound feet are dying off.

Nowadays, lotus shoes can only be seen in museums, or are sold as souvenir items. They are from a bygone era, as the practice of foot binding has become a relic of the past.

Examples of lotus shoes for Chinese women with bound feet, and a cast of a bound foot.

Examples of lotus shoes for Chinese women with bound feet, and a cast of an actual bound foot.