In 1818 creative New Jersey inventor Seth Boyden (1788–1870) discovered a special finishing process during which several layers of dyes, oils, varnishes, or resins were applied to unfinished leather, giving it a hard, glossy finish. Shoe factories near his home in Newark soon began producing fashionable shoes from the new leather. By the end of the nineteenth century young boys and girls of wealthy families wore black patent leather slippers, and they were also a popular choice for adult formal wear. In the 1920s a popular men's hairstyle where the hair was slicked down flat with oil was known as the patent leather look.
Patent leather saw a surge in popularity during the 1950s and 1960s, when it was used for young girls' formal shoes. Following the difficulties of World War II (1939–45), the 1950s and early 1960s were booming economic times. The introduction of television and many new electric appliances were part of a general atmosphere that valued things that were modern, shiny, and new. Glossy black, and sometimes white, patent leather shoes were a standard part of the wardrobe of girls from all classes and ethnic backgrounds, to be worn for special occasions or to places of worship. In fact, one of the most enduring popular stories about patent leather shoes comes from a religious source. It is commonly reported by those who grew up during the 1960s that Roman Catholic priests and nuns warned girls away from patent leather, telling them that the glossy surface of the shoes would reflect their underpants. This bit of folklore, whether true or not, has led to many popular jokes and at least one theatrical production, Bill McHale's 1985 musical play Do Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?, a humorous examination of a Catholic childhood.
Toward the end of the twentieth century dress became more casual, and patent leather shoes were no longer a required part of a young girl's wardrobe. They are still worn by children and adults as formal shoes, however, and 2001 saw a modern twist on the classic leather when the shoe manufacturer Nike introduced "retro" Air Jordan patent leather sneakers, selling for $125.
Pratt, Lucy, and Linda Woolley. Shoes. London: V&A, 1999.
Yue, Charlotte, and David Yue. Shoes: Their History in Words and Pictures. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.