Victorian baby shoes

Britain, c. 1850

[b]Left and centre:[/b] Donated by Pastorella Shelley in 1949; 1949.10.38–.39 [b]Right:[/b] Donated by Margaret F. Irvine in 1949; 1949.9.274Left and centre: Donated by Pastorella Shelley in 1949; 1949.10.38–.39 Right: Donated by Margaret F. Irvine in 1949; 1949.9.274

The pairs on the left and on the right are hand-made of quilted silk but the pair in the centre is made of satin. The three pairs range between 10–12 cm in length and they all have machine-stitched soft leather soles. Since the sewing machine was not in general use until the 1850s, it is unlikely the shoes are any earlier in date than this. The two pairs on the left probably belonged to the donor's father, who was born in 1849.

Before Victorian times, children were dressed like little adults. Only in the 19th century did clothes appear that were specially designed for children. However, like these silk and satin shoes, only children from wealthier families would only have worn such items. Children from poorer backgrounds had to make to do with one pair of leather shoes, often handed down, or no shoes at all.

The materials used to make these shoes are of soft, pastel colours: green, pink and blue. With the invention and availability of aniline dyes in the 1870s, stronger and more garish colours such as puce, plum, scarlet red and navy became more popular for children's clothing.

It is notable that the pink shoes in the middle were apparently worn by a boy. Today, there is a cultural preference in Western societies for pink as a girl's colour and blue as a boy's. In recent times, evolutionary psychologists have tried to locate genetic preferences for colour. Their studies have come up with various theories surrounding the apparent female preference for pink, be it an in-built sensitivity to the flushed colour of a baby's face in distress, or a trait left over from Palaeolithic times when women had to be able to identify berries when out gathering. Whilst such theories are interesting, the evidence behind them remains inconclusive and the fact remains that colour preferences are largely culturally determined.

It is only since the 1940s that blue for boys and pink for girls have became widely accepted 'norms. Before this, these gender associations were, in fact, reversed. Until the First World War, it was common to dress middle and upper class boys in petticoats and keep their hair long. Journals, magazines and clothing catalogues aimed at mothers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries advised that pink was more suitable for a boy as a tempered form of red which was a stronger, fiercer colour. Blue, which is more dainty and delicate, was considered more suitable for a girl. The eponymous character of English author Lewis Carroll's 1865 novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was depicted wearing a yellow dress in the first colour version of the work. However one year later, the illustrator John Tiennel depicted Alice in a pale blue dress and white pinafore that became the classically recognizable figure that endures to this day. In America, Louisa May Alcott's book Little Women was published in 1869 and became a bestseller. In one passage describing the sisters' reaction to newborn twins in the family, the eldest, Meg, remarks, "I put a blue ribbon on the boy and a pink on the girl, French fashion, so you can tell them apart." This suggests that modern pink-blue colour conventions originated in Europe but were certainly not widespread in the later 1800s.

© 2011 - The Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, England