Oxfordshire collections go Head over Heels for feathers, shoes, boots and headdresses

By Ben Miller | 06 July 2012
A photo of a pair of ancient basic brown shoes dating from centuries ago
A pair of child’s elasticated boots, made in Hughes Shoe Shop, Wantage, during the early Victorian period, feature in a new collaborative display at The Oxfordshire Museum© Oxfordshire Museum
Exhibition: Head over Heels, The Oxfordshire Museum, Woodstock, until September 9 2012

A lengthy collaboration between museums, universities and collections across Oxford has paid off handsomely. First shown at The Museum of Oxford, this enviable wardrobe of hats and shoes features the bowed footwear of bygone mayors, a homemade beekeeper’s hat, a cocked hat donned by the High Sheriff and sheepskin boots used to keep the tootsies of airmen warm while they flew the heater-less aircraft of the First World War.

A photo of a pair of ancient, worn brown shoes with etched out soles
This pair of heavily worn clogs were found along with other shoes and a set of cobbler tools during modernisation work in a roof space in Standlake© Oxfordshire Museum
Perhaps the most elusive question is the mystery of why shoes are frequently found bricked into walls near windows, doors and roofs in properties in the south.

There’s still no definitive answer – theories ponder evil-warding properties and the keeping of spirits in footwear – but one certainty is the importance of shoe style long before high street finesse, attested to by leather fragments of rounded and pointed-toe shoes, found during an excavation of Oxford Castle decades ago and believed to date from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries.

Other highlights of a five-section show include an animal headdress from a Tudor pageant in 1885, an obligatory worn cap worn by a maid in a sartorial symbol of household expectations during the 1930s, and a feathered hat from the 19th century – at the time, feathers were so popular (and expensive) that they played a part in the foundation of the Society for the Protection of Birds, formed in 1889 amid concerns about the international trade of feathers from rare species.

“Delving in to the local history of and shoes has been a rewarding experience for everybody involved, particularly when working with the community groups and volunteers who have given up their time to help,” says Object Conservator Sam van de Geer.

“The exhibition will show people how fashion influences us all in obvious and sometimes hidden ways.”

  • Open 10am-5pm (2pm-5pm Sunday, closed Monday). Admission free.

More pictures:

A photo of a flat board head piece on a circular shape dating from centuries ago
A mortar board made by Oxford's Hookham Company was worn by FE Marshall - a lawyer who died in 1874 - during the mid-Victorian period© Oxfordshire Museum
A photo of a curvy thin black sole of a shoe from centuries ago against a blue backdrop
This medieval shoe fragment was found during the 1973 excavation of Oxford castle, during the construction of the Westgate shopping centre© Oxfordshire Museum
An image of a white frilly head garment with a black band around it
A maid's cap worn by a housemaid named Bella at Swyncombe House during the 1930s© Oxfordshire Museum
An image of a velvet-style material top hat in dark red with a pink band around its top
This hat was worn by baker's daughter Annie Elizabeth Biggers during the 1930s© Oxfordshire Museum
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