Simply designed, low-cut shoes that lace up the front and have flat heels and thin soles, oxfords are the most common modern shoe for Western men. Many women wear them as well. Oxfords were worn in Europe as early as the 1640s, but they first became popular in Great Britain during the late 1800s and later throughout Europe and the United States. By about 1910 most men and boys wore lace-up oxford shoes for many social occasions.
During the 1800s both men and women wore boots or high-topped shoes that fastened with buttons. The lace-up oxford style shoe was originally a half boot worn by students at Britain's Oxford University, from which the style took its name. As the new shoe fashion spread at the beginning of the twentieth century, modern young people everywhere found oxfords attractive and comfortable. The new laces also made the shoe simpler to put on and take off than the older, time-consuming buttoned shoes. Though some men thought at first that the laces looked too feminine, they soon gave in and began wearing the new style.
The oxford style was flexible and could be used for dressy shoes as well as shoes for work and sport. Toes could be square or rounded, and some were decorated with stamped leather caps. These were called captoes or wing tips depending on the shape of the cap on the toe. Starting in the 1920s very fashionable young men wore two-toned oxfords, which used two different colors of leather in the same shoe to create a sporty look.
In the early 1900s women gained new freedoms. In many countries they were gaining the right to vote, as well as other rights, and a new image of the modern woman was emerging. This modern woman was more active and athletic, and her clothing was, therefore, both freer and sturdier. The new oxford style shoe fit this new active lifestyle perfectly. Although women did not wear them for formal occasions, they did wear oxfords for sports and other activities. Pioneer woman aviator Amelia Earhart (1897–1937), who began her flying career during the early 1920s, was often pictured wearing oxford shoes.
Schoeffler, O. E., and William Gale. Esquire's Encyclopedia of 20th Century Men's Fashions. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973.
Yue, Charlotte, and David Yue. Shoes: Their History in Words and Pictures. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.
[ See also Volume 4, 1919–29: Wing Tips ]