Can you get of faire-appropriate footwear for under ten bucks? An Experiment.
-By Scott Perkins
As I (and many others) have noted in the past, the greatest expense most rennies encounter in the accumulation of their renaissance wardrobe is shoes. Period shoes are either handmade and expensive works of art or cheaply made and expensive anyway. Either way you can’t seem to duck the expense.
This problem weighs especially heavy on the male reenactor since society has found it meet that they should keep the period-appropriate “Mary Jane” shoe in style for women but not for men. So if you’re a lad with feet too large to shop both sides of the aisle, you’re in quite a period pickle.
The most common cheat on this issue is the moccasin. Numerous period costuming guides (this site included) say “Cut the fringe off and you’re good to go”. While this is certainly preferable to seeing tennis shoes, they simply aren’t period… not for Europeans anyway. But since there are so few options out there for the rennie on a budget, they are generally tolerated as a lesser – or at least less expensive – evil.
(For the sake of full disclosure: I wrote those words and stand by them. I own several pairs of moccasins, which I’ve worn to fairs until they’ve literally fallen off my feet. I like them. They’re comfy. They’re also something of a burr under my artistic saddle. They’re just not right.)
Long ago, whilst browsing the aisles of a shoe store, it occurred to me that there’s simply not that much difference between most men’s dress shoes and the shoes from the Elizabethan period. It occurred to me that one might get away with modifying a modern pair of dress shoes into something that would be perfectly acceptable in the 16th century. I filed that thought away in the back of my mental filing cabinet and went on with my life. Until this morning, when I discovered that several others had the same thought and acted on it...
I don't wish to take anything away from the originator of the idea - whoever it was. More power to him/her/them. I’m glad someone got around to trying it and posting the results for the rest of us to see.
The latchet shoe appeared in the 16th century as the medieval turnshoe gave way to welted soles and constructed leather uppers (multiple seams, sized construction, etc). Buckled and laced shoes with welted soles were brought up in the Mary Rose wreckage (sank 1545) and a decidedly latchet-style shoe is visible in several portraits as early as a 1573 portrait of the future king of France, Henry Duc d’Anjou. So arguably, they’re just fine for our era.
The idea for what I’m doing here belongs to the reenactor fellow whose website I linked to a paragraph back. Full credit goes to him. He doesn’t really walk you through the steps he took though, so I have undertaken to do so here.
Caveat: Read all the steps before you purchase the shoes you are going to use for this!
Go to Goodwill, the Salvation Army or the garage sale of your choice andpurchase a pair of leather dress shoes in your size. It is important to chose carefully or the following steps won’t work or won’t look right.
(when I need to work at a taller surface I oft-times stand and work atop the washing machine)
Note: The shoes chosen for this demonstration cost all of $2.99 at
Goodwill in Tacoma!
Some things to consider when making your choice…
- No capped toes, saddle shoes or wingtips.These won’t come off looking like anything other than what they are, 20th century styles masquerading as renaissance latchet shoes.
- You want the minimum number of seams possible crossing the area you are going to cut.The simpler the shoe the better.
- Punched holes for the laces, not grommets or lacing rings (like the ones you find on hiking boots).
- For a peasanty period look you want brown leather.Even in the 16th century black was dressy and expensive, avoid it.
- Minimum sole. Ideally, you want a welted (sewn to the upper) leather sole with a ‘stacked’ heel (stacked pieces of leather are compressed and laminated into a solid mass before being cut into a heel shape) which is common in men’s dress shoes and nicer cowboy boots. If this isn’t possible, go for the lowest sole profile you can find with a simulated welt, such as I used for the demonstration.
Caveat: If you go with boots, like the guy from the English Civil War, you’re going to be experimenting on your own. I haven’t tried that yet, but I imagine it would run much the same with boots as it will with the shoes.
Look at your shoe, really look at the shoe. Try to imagine what’s there that makes it not a period shoe. Laces are a big one; they’ll have to go, along with the holes they are threaded through.
(Yes, I added the lines after the fact using the computer... the lines I drew didn't show up in the photo for some reason...)
Use a pencil or piece of chalk to draw lines where you are going to cut, like the lines shown on the diagram to the left. Take note of the seams you will have to cross and approach them carefully.
NOTE: On the first attempt I made the mistake of cutting away all but the top hole of the lacing strip.This caused fit problems you can see below on the right shoe. The lace (in a final product I’d use a leather thong) sits too high on the tongue and the tongue would eventually shift and cause fit issues and discomfort.By cutting to the second or even the third hole of the lacing strip, you alleviate this issue. As a further bonus, this also works to subtly relieve the modern line of the shoe.
Cut... Very... Carefully!!
Carefully follow your lines. You want curves, not angles, so go slow. I used short-bladed utility scissors for the most part. You can use a knife if you’re careful but scissors are easier to control.
Cut up to the seam and them pull the seam out so you can see what the leather underneath is doing.
Odds are that some or all of it will have to go, as you see here, but this is easier if you can see what you’re doing.
A dab of leather glue might keep you from
having to sew that seam down, but I’d probably bartack the seam just because it
would give the shoe a more finished look when you’re done.
Note: Pull out as much of the lining as you feel comfortable with losing. If you don’t, the edges where you cut will have to be tacked down with stitches or glue or they’ll crumple and cause blisters over the course of a long hot day at faire.
Trim away any stitching that runs along the edges of the shoe.For the most part, you want natural edges if you can get them.It will add to the rusticity of your shoe and relieve some of the modernity.
The best thing about experimenting with a cheap pair of shoes like this is that there's two of them. The first attempt at making the cuts was on the right shoe. Much was learned and much improved in the second shoe and the second attempt...
First Attempt (right shoe)
The primary problem is simple... the cuts are far too large. I cut all the way down to the arch on the inside and ended up with what amounts to a pair of period sandals. Also, as previously noted, I cut from the top hole of the lacing, leaving not enough tongue under the tie and causing a fit issue.
Second Attempt (left shoe)
I made the cuts smaller and managed more even cutting and softer circles. Cutting from the second hole of the laces left more tongue above the thong and by cutting away some of the collar (my shoe terminology stinks, I know) I reduced the modern lines somewhat.
What I'd do different...
- In the final pictures on both shoes you’ll note some things that would detract from the overall look of the final product.If I were going to wear the demo pair at faire, I would sand down the entire shoe with some 220 grit sandpaper.I might even wax it afterwards with a waterproofing agent such as Snowseal.Not as a waterproofing agent, mind you, but to alleviate the rub marks left on the tongue by the laces in its former incarnation.
- I geared this toward people who didn't want to do any leatherwork. Since I'm a leatherworker, I'd probably do a lot more to finish the seams and cut a leather thong or even apply a loop & button or buckle to remove these one step further from their modern roots.
- I just re-watched the podcast from that kid at American Boy and he punched holes in the tongue for the lace to thread through. That would alleviate some of my tongue problems. I'll do it on the next pair I make.
- It occurs to me that for a landsknecht or noble outfit, it would be easy to adorn the body of the shoe with pinks and cuttes to one's heart's content.
And there you go. For $2.99 and a little bit of an afternoon spent in communion with a pair of scissors, you have a pair of period presentable latchet shoes!
Huzzah the pennywise peasantloafer!