Northern Society of Costume and Textiles
Tops and Tails
St Peter's Church Hall, Saltaire, Bradford

The sun shone gloriously on Titus Salt’s hallowed Empire of worsted and alpaca production when over 60 Society members and guests met at our re-scheduled Saltaire meeting.

Conservator, Dale Keeton, current Curator at Keighley’s ‘Cliffe Castle Museum’ introduced himself as a ‘shoe-a-holic’, whose interest had been whetted when he first examined Bradford’s unique collection of Costume, including 300 boxes of shoes.
Dale charted the origins and evolution of over 2000 years of footwear, from early Egyptian rush and Japanese carved wooden examples, heeled to   elevate the wearer above the mud, blood and guts of everyday life to Salvatore Ferragamo’s revolutionary steel reinforced stilettos of the 1950’s, loved by the cobblers who re-heeled them and hated by the owners of hard wood floors!
Dale maintains that men assess a new acquaintance face downwards, whereas women form an opinion shoe upward, but that, throughout history, both sexes have used footwear to promote the desired first impression, be it of wealth, taste, masculinity or femininity.
Illustrating this were a myriad of  wonderfully eclectic examples, from beautifully jewelled and embroidered 18th Century ‘Louis’ heels worn by the French Court elite to Japanese ‘Temple Ladder’ shoes designed to highlight the culturally desirable, minute, bound female foot of the wearer and French ‘Boudoir’ pumps, their delicate kid leather decorated with wafer thin ‘Chasseau’ rosettes, named after the fine French pastry.
Dale maintains that every pair of shoes has their own story to tell, be they the stealthy, feather soled shoes of a hanged murderer, or the highly prized Spanish, painted leather designs of the 1550’s, 33 pairs of which were purchased from Belgium by an English lady, bankrupting her husband in the process!
Dale’s fascinating talk illustrated how necessity also inspires change, telling how an extremely severe Russian weather front lead to a short-lived, European fashion for Russian, Cossack-inspired leather boots during the winter’s of 1924-26 and how the damaging rubbing of crinolines on the toes of silk pumps led to their becoming heavily decorated and reinforced with ribbons and other decoration, becoming a fashion in itself.
A lively discussion then focused on  how much the female foot has grown in size since the emancipation of women, due to changes in the role of women, exercise and activity.
After a warming lunch, Archaeology graduate, Meredith Towne, told how an interest in Costume sparked by her mother, resulted in postgraduate studies and historical costume creation for ‘Cosprop’ and various northern theatres. Her talk ‘A Hundred Years of Bonnets and Hats’ covered the tumultuous period from 1825, one that saw many changes due to industrial and social advances.
Meredith used an array of examples to illustrate how developments in headwear map the changing role and activities of women in society. She questioned whether the large brimmed straw hats of the late 1820’s, worn on the back of the head, developed to show off the delicate ringlets combed onto the face of the wearer, or vice versa. Likewise, did the Edwardians use of false hair to create plumped up volume lead to the fashion for the massive, heavily adorned hats, fashionably trimmed with whole birds, that blocked theatre-goers views? She told how hatpins, sometimes up to 16 inches in length, secured these and, in 1908 with the Suffragettes in mind, a law was passed restricting these to a maximum 9 inches!
Initially, France dominated as style leader, with 100,000 people employed in millinery production in the town of St Etiennes, but political turbulence disrupted the supply of premium quality ‘Leghorn’ straw, from Lugano in Italy, leading to the emergence of a fledgling British straw and trimmings industry, centred on Luton.
Meredith explained that consequently, Leghorn straw hats became highly prized, worn un-dyed and untrimmed to show their quality. It became socially acceptable for young ladies of quality to spend their time in trimming and re-trimming cheaper straw bonnets with a myriad of ribbons, lace, flower and feather trimmings. Restrictions on the use of exotic feathers from endangered species caused the decline in the number of ‘Plumassier’s’ working in Paris, with Meredith ending her fascinating insight by explaining that only 5 now remain of the 19th Century high of 300, catering mainly to the Haute Couture.
Fiona Lawrence