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Who are you Mary Jane?

Celebrating the Roaring Twenties in a Special Series

Multi-strap patent leather Mary Janes by WittnerThe classic shoe of the Roaring Twenties must be the Mary Jane. Not to be confused with the T-strap (which was introduced in 1922), the Mary Jane was a broad, comfortable shoe, with a single flat strap across the instep fastening with a button on the side. The original Mary Janes flappers donned, unlike the modern versions today, were low-heeled – one to two inches high only – the more comfortable to dance all night in.

Traditionally, the Mary Jane was a child’s shoe that was worn when a toddler took his or her first steps, and was in fact worn by boys and girls alike. Alice in Wonderland and Christopher Robin are two characters in children’s literature that wore them, and they can be seen even as far back as in Tudor paintings of the 16th century.

An innocent-seeming pair of suede flat Mary Janes, from Quick Brown Fox In 1902 a comic strip named Buster Brown about a group of mischievous children, including Buster’s sister Mary Jane, and his dog Tige, was published in the New York Herald newspaper. By 1904 the cartoon was so popular it lead the Brown Shoe Company to licence the characters and to take a troupe of costumed actors across America, visiting department and shoe stores. It was not until 1909 however that Mary Jane’s name was immortalised, when it was applied to single-strap children’s shoes. In the years following, the shoe gradually became associated solely with girls, and disappeared entirely from boys’ wardrobes. 

Flapper style was evoked by slender, boyish youthfulness, the quintessence of fashionable trends of the era, and the Mary Jane was adopted as the shoe of choice: Fashions of the 1920s deliberately rejected any hint of the matron, and the Mary Jane shoe, the most childish of shoe shapes, was a perfect foil for this fashion. [Vintage Shoes, by Caroline Cox, Carlton Books, 2008]

By the end of the decade however, Mary Jane shoes had become more sophisticated. Heels were higher and more tapered (particularly for evening) and they were constructed from more luxurious materials, with satins, brocades and hand-painted silks reserved for evening. The rest is history.

Read the history of Mary Janes in more detail, from Vintage Shoes, by Caroline Cox, Carlton Books, 2008
Comfortable Mary Jane shoes for dancing, from Vintage Shoes, by Caroline Cox, Carlton Books, 2008

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