July 23, 2011

Buying Guide: Vintage Shoes

Bigger than a blog post, this buying guide was originally posted at VintageVixen.com back in '06. We transferred it to our blog as we ready for a redesign of our website. Though it's long, it's a worthwhile find for the vintage shoe hound.

Finding great vintage shoes is no easy feat! We see old shoes by the thousands at Vintage Vixen, but we pick only the best available. And we can pick'em! Gorgeous leather, glamorous satin, funky vinyl and even fur & feathers can be had in vintage footwear. It's easy to get carried away with fabulous vintage shoes, but a smart shopper will know about more than just great style.

One of the most appealing things about vintage shoes is quality. Many shoes of the last century into the 1950s were hand-lasted, hand-stitched and of incredible caliber. Finding a handmade shoe today is close to impossible, unless your budget is several hundred dollars per pair. For this reason, vintage shoes are an unbeatable value when condition matches quality. The other big reason for buying vintage is style. Whether you're going elegant or glam, hand-pieced kidskin and rhinestone-studded lucite heels simply don't exist in modern clothing shops. Vintage shoes provide an entirely unique world of options.

The main challenge in vintage shoe-shopping is that they're often small sizes and narrow widths. Anything larger than a ladies' size 7 or so is relatively hard to find. Luckily, vintage shoes of the last century are usually carefully sized with numbers and letters that include detailed width information (see sizing below). Check for stamped lettering at the inside of the heel or ankle strap, or along the inside edge of a boot. Casual shoes and slippers sometimes mark this information on the outsole.

The other tricky facet of shoe-shopping is condition. Vintage shoes are potentially the most used and yet still quite wearable. They may have seen miles of hard pavement but the uppers (the top part, above the soles) are still in excellent shape. So vintage shoes are often Jekyll & Hyde when it comes to condition, and if you see
something described as "worn" that won't necessarily mean "worn out". Often it's the most well-loved shoes that have the most appealing designs, and if you love them too, they can be resoled. The cost we see is usually $30-40 minimum.

On the other hand, finding shoes that have never been worn is not only possible, it's a heyday for the savvy shopper. New-old stock shoes are often best bets because their insoles are not yet molded into someone else's foot shape. Also, the only likely condition flaw is a heel tap to be replaced (under $5 at the repair shop), or perhaps a few scuffs from movement in storage.

From the Vintage Vixen Archives

1930s Black Patent Leather & Net Peep-Toe Shoes

1940s Open-Toed Snake Skin Heels

Cinderella Clear Lucite & Rhinestone Spring-o-lator Heels

Fantastic 1960s Floral-Embroidered Canvas Go-Go Boots

Vintage & Collectible Shoes Info
at About.com


Unlike vintage garments, vintage shoe sizes have not changed to a substantial degree over the years. The size marked on a vintage shoe should correspond to roughly the same size of a modern shoe, though vintage shoes are often narrower than contemporary ones. Because of this, we list the actual marked size for shoes in our online catalog, instead of assigning a modern size equivalent. That being said, a lady with a modern size 7.5 foot may range from a 7 to an 8 in vintage shoes depending on the era of the shoe and the maker.

To be certain of fit, you should measure a pair of your own shoes across the ball of the foot, and from toe to heel and compare. Make sure the pair you measure has the same heel height as the pair you're looking at on our site. Also take into account whether the toes of the shoe are pointed. A pointed shoe you wish to buy online may not match a rounded toe you're measuring because of the different "silhouette". You should not measure your own feet to compare with the shoes' measurements on our site.

It's a nice perk that vintage shoes often have detailed width information. Width of vintage shoes is described by the letter after the shoe size (for example, a shoe size 7 B). Letters range from AAAAA to D, and better quality vintage shoes often have two widths for a custom fit - the first width is the toebox, the second is for the heel.

Care & Feeding

Vintage shoes, whether they've seen pavement or not, have components like rubber, glue and leather that age differently than most garments do. Rubber can crumble, glue can lose adhesiveness, and leather can become dry and brittle. The older the shoe (or the poorer its quality or storage conditions) the more likely this will happen. Most shoes mid-1960s and later have little of this sort of wear, but 1930s to 60s shoes may need occasional care - and shoes earlier than this should be generally treated like the elders they are. Here are a few tips to help with maintenance:

Rubber - Heel taps and sometimes the entire sole is made of rubber. You can see cracks or feel crumbling; if the shoe has been worn, you can see the angle at which the previous owner walked and scraped the rubber away. Heel taps are easily replaceable at a shoe repair shop, so they are not an issue when purchasing. They should be replaced promptly though, as building up the heel is the more expensive alternative. Rubber soles, if crumbling or tacky, will not get better with time.

Glue - Can be a surprise problem, if the sole of the shoe suddenly falls away from the upper! This would rarely be a possibility except with some vintage sneakers or lesser quality shoes (where the sole is glued instead of stitched to the upper). A shoe repair person will have the right kind of glue to re-attach the parts, as regular craft glue is not strong enough. If we suspect a shoe may have this problem, we bend the sole to listen for cracking and feel for shifting of the sole. Most soles that have come unglued can be repaired for reliable use.

Leather - Preventive maintenance is the key here. Leather becomes dry over time, leaving it less supple and more likely to tear. When shopping in-person, you should bend the leather a bit and listen/feel for cracking. Supple leather is strong leather. Cracking means it's brittle and likely won't stand up to hard wear.

To avoid dryness, leather needs moisturizer in the form of saddle soap and leather conditioners. Some ridged or scaled leathers like alligator may not do well with saddle soap, if the texture makes it hard to remove all the saddle soap. You can also find liquid moisturizers for leather of this type. To clean a pair of leather shoes, apply a light amount of saddle soap, buff into the leather and then remove as much as possible by buffing it out with a dry, clean cloth. Saddle soap will lightly moisturize, but for preventive maintenance or dried-out leather, use a conditioner like neat's foot oil. If you should ever get leather wet, fill the shoe with newspaper to help it dry, and take it to a cleaners as soon as possible. Liquid lines will appear as the leather dries. You can lessen these by buffing the leather with a soft cloth as it dries, but they're hard to remove entirely once dry.

Suede - The same rules apply with suede as with leather. Suede, however, is more testy than leather and less forgiving when wet.

Fabric - Because shoes see much more abrasion than most garments, fabric is more likely to fray at the bottom edge of the upper. Brocades and satins are the most common to fray due to the way these fabrics are woven. You can stop fray with a product called Fray-Check, but this could discolor fabric as well (test first). Better yet, wear special occasion fabric shoes with caution. Utility fabrics like canvas are not likely to have these issues.

Before you wear a newly purchased pair of vintage shoes, wear them around the house awhile. Make sure they're comfortable and strong enough for street use. Shoes that spent the last few decades in retirement may need some observation before you can wear them carefree. A walk-around may show you that a heel will need replacing soon, or that you'd like the soles evened out a touch. Foam inserts can also "re-size" shoes a bit while providing better comfort, and they give worn shoes a fresher interior.

One last tip before wearing - better quality shoes often have hand-lasted leather soles that were molded and finished only as custom shoes would be made today. In new-old stock shoes, these smooth soles should be scored before they're worn so that the wearer avoids slipping. Scoring is a simple process - the smooth sole is marked up with criss-crossing slices of a sharp blade like an Exacto. This should be done carefully for the shoes' sake, but more importantly for the one wielding the knife! If you're afraid of doing this, the other option is to add a rubber tread at the cobbler's.

Anatomy of a Shoe

Sign of quality - Hand-molded patent leather appliques.

1940s era genuine snake skin with metallic finish.

Maker stamped in one sole, exclusive shop stamped in the other.

Best Foot Forward

To sum up, there's no better investment than exquisite vintage shoes with lots of life left. Shopping for vintage shoes is a rewarding task if you remember to seek out excellent quality and condition. These lists are a smart summary of hunting tips for the well-shod. Print them out and go shopping!

Go for quality:

  • genuine patent leather or full-grain leather
  • genuine alligator, reptile or other exotic leathers
  • hand-lasted soles
  • shoes with real wood or leather stacked heels (not a stacked look molded from plastic)

  • shoes made in Italy or Spain
  • shoes with a maker stamped in one insole, and the shop that carried the shoe in the other insole (indicates exclusivity and/or expense)
  • shoes with extensive sizing information (indicate they're custom and expensively made)

    Avoid these things if you want shoes you can wear daily:
  • shoes made before the 1950s
  • brittle, stiff or dry leather
  • the beginning of breaks in the material at points of stress

  • leather already repaired
  • most suedes, although sueded leather is less finicky
  • crocking suede (meaning that the suede dusts off little by little. This generally indicates lesser quality,
    though all suede crocked until the 1940s/50s)
  • vinyl if it's cracked or peeling
  • tacky residue on the insoles

    Happy shopping!

---April Ainsworth


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