Men and women both enjoyed access to a wide range of footwear in the first decades of the twentieth century. In the last half of the nineteenth century several important breakthroughs had made shoes more comfortable and cheaper than ever before. The comfort came from the invention of shoes designed to fit right and left feet specifically. Up until this invention most people had worn straights, or shoes with straight soles that could be worn on either foot. Only the very rich could afford to have shoes custom made to their feet. Several different Americans invented machines to increase the speed of shoe production, especially the difficult job of sewing the uppers to the thick soles of shoes, and the first rubber heel for shoes was invented in 1899 by Humphrey O'Sullivan. Soon the United States led the world in shoe production. From heavy boots to dressy leather boots, and from comfortable tennis shoes to light sandals, people now had a great variety of shoes from which to choose.
Closely fitted high-top leather boots were one of the most popular shoe styles for both men and women at the turn of the century, and women especially liked these dressy boots as their skirt lengths became shorter and shoes became visible. By far the most popular shoe for women, however, was the pump. A pump was a moderately high-heeled shoe, usually made of leather, with an upper that covered the toes and wrapped around the side of the foot and behind the heel, leaving the top of the foot bare. These snug-fitting shoes were infinitely adaptable and could be made in any number of colors and ornamented with buckles, ribbons, or other ornaments. Women who liked to dance preferred pumps with straps across the top to keep the shoe on. The pump remained one of the basic dress shoes for women throughout the century.
While men in the nineteenth century had generally worn high-top shoes and boots, men in the first decades of the new century showed a distinct preference for low-cut shoes. The most popular shoe of the period was the oxford, which took its name from England's Oxford University, where the shoe originated. Made of leather or suede, the oxford slipped over the foot and was laced across the instep. Two-toned oxfords first became popular as summer wear in about 1912. Women also wore a variation of the men's oxford.
The tennis shoe, the most popular shoe of the twentieth century, got its start in the late nineteenth century but truly rose to popularity following the invention of the Converse All-Star basketball shoe in 1917. With a light canvas upper and grippy rubber soles, these athletic shoes quickly became a favorite leisure shoe.
Lawlor, Laurie. Where Will This Shoe Take You?: A Walk Through the History of Footwear. New York: Walker and Co., 1996.
Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
Pratt, Lucy, and Linda Woolley. Shoes. London, England: V&A Publications, 1999.