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The idea that feet were smaller "back then" is a story almost as old as "back then" is! While Cinderella feet certainly did exist and were often referenced in poetry and stories, it doesn’t really give us a full and accurate concept of actual shoe size in the past. But how do we go about giving numbers to an era before records like that were kept? If we look at shoes in museums, they often look impossibly tiny. And plenty of documents from the early 20th century talk about the "size 3" feet of women past. Does that evidence amount to enough? Of course not!
Just like clothing styles and construction have changed, so have shoes. They aren’t made like they used to be! So there’s a lot more than just an arbitrary number assigned. How shoes fit, how feet were measured, and what survives all skew our modern view. Simply put, a size 3 isn’t a size 3 and a small shoe often holds many secrets.
Our modern sizing system wasn’t really put into place until 1887, and even then it wasn’t a guarantee. While sized shoes had been sold commonly since the 18th century, every manufacture had their own chart. And to further complicate the matter, the chart continued to slowly shift well into the mid-20th century. And it seems to have been slow enough that no one even noticed! A size 3 in 1870 measures a size 5 in 1920 and a size 7 in 2021. So what happened?
And this doesn’t even touch on the tricks employed to give the illusion of small feet. Everything from placement of bows to high heels to painting the soles black was mentioned in shoemaking manuals and magazine articles. The Victorians certainly had an interest in the fashion of small feet, but most could only fake it. And, as it turns out, the Edwardians were FAR less concerned with this aspect and ushered in a few decades of long pointed toes!
1864 Boots Originals: https://www.historicnewengland.org/explore/collections-access/gusn/925/
05:46 Museum Bias
10:56 Shoe Sizes
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