Left: British Slippers, last quarter of the 18th century. Black leather. Gift of Charles Ryskamp, 2002 (2002.537.2a, b). Right: European Shoes, ca. 1750–60. Green silk satin with tarnished gilt floral embroidery. Purchase, Millia Davenport and Zipporah Fleisher Fund, Irene Lewisohn Trust, 2001 (2001.748a, b).
Quotidian fashions of the past, even if they were intended for the upper classes, rarely survive. With the exception of formal court attire, this is especially true of menswear, as the combination of the persistence of male styles compared to women’s fashions and the relatively heavier functional requirements of male dress resulted in its loss through wear and a disinterest in its preservation for aesthetic reasons. These shoes, however, were spared the typical fate because of their association with a person of note—the famed poet, hymnist, and letter writer William Cowper (1731–1800). Unlike the other examples of sartorial mastery in the exhibition, these shoes are significant precisely because they are so ordinary in their look and make and are so typical of their time—and because they survived. They are likely to have been worn with articles of a gentlemen’s “undress,” a banyan or robe and a soft cap, attire in which Cowper was depicted.
For all the floor-sweeping plenitude of fabric in an eighteenth-century gown, feet were not forgotten as an opportunity for the expression of refinement, luxury, and style. Paintings of the period invariably represent the delicacy of finely wrought shoes bared by the aristocratic sitter as she crosses her legs at her ankles or knees. Standing, it is the toe and counter of her shoe that are discretely exposed. Although the front of the shoe bore the greatest embellishment, as it was the part most exposed, the “Louis” heel, with its delicately sculptured profile, is what has come to characterize the style of the period. The fine line of white piping between the sole and the upper is a detail that, for the most part, disappears after the mid-eighteenth century.