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
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
Anatomy of a Shoe
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!