Curator's Choice: Liverpool curator Alyson Pollard on a Victorian lady's pair of boots

Alyson Pollard interviewed by Ben Miller | 16 June 2011
A photo of a woman with a pair of Victorian boots
Curator's Choice: In Her Own Words…Curator Alyson Pollard of the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Liverpool on a pair of suede and leather boots from nearly 100 years ago.

“These pristine boots may not be the prettiest boots in the exhibition – they look as if they have never been worn – but they say so much about womens' lives at the time they were made.

The boots are displayed in the third and final room of The Finishing Touch exhibition, which shows items from the period 1910 to 1940. They are a world away from the beautiful, delicate, pale, silk shoes and boots from the early 19th century, which are shown in the first room of the exhibition.

Beautiful as the early footwear looks, it has to be borne in mind that it was probably very uncomfortable to wear. During this period shoes were not made to fit a right or left foot, but were made straight. There were also no standard sizes until later in the 19th century.

Cramming feet into small shoes or boots to make them appear small was commonplace. This practice often resulted in deformed toes. Apart from being tight and badly fitting, most of the early shoes in the exhibition provided little support of any kind and were totally unsuitable for even moderate outdoor wear. Fortunately, middle-class women were not expected to walk very far.

More hardwearing versions were available for the occasional country walk, as popularised by Queen Victoria on her Balmoral estate in Scotland. A country walk was considered beneficial to health, as long as it did not ruin the complexion.

However, on the whole it is true to say that middle-class women lived very sedentary lives. Until the end of the 19th century they were not expected to have a career and were excluded from higher education as a consequence.

Fast forward to the First Word War, the period when these boots were made, and women were working in armaments factories, driving buses, working in offices and doing many other jobs which previously had been reserved for men.

These boots were made to be worn by women who had a role outside the home. They were made by the Liverpool firm J Collinson & Co Ltd, of Bold Street.

Towards the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, Bold Street was referred to as “the Bond Street of the North”. The shops here were frequented by the wives and daughters of wealthy cotton merchants and ship owners. Collinson’s were the top shoe making firm in Liverpool during this period.

These boots were made to provide plenty of support and were easy to walk in, having a small heel. They are hardwearing, yet fashionable for the time. The style of button-through boot had been popular throughout the Victorian period, but the use of two colours in imitation of spats is very much of its day.

‘Spats’ were coverings, mostly worn by men, over the top of their shoes to protect them from mud. During this period, footwear catalogues show images of men’s shoes and women’s shoes which are, interestingly, virtually identical.

By imitating mens’ fashion, women were portraying themselves as more business-like and independent. Consequently, these boots are a small expression of the change that was occurring in women’s role in society at this time.

Hopefully, they were worn by a woman who knew that the movement towards votes for women and eventually equal rights was becoming unstoppable.”

  • The Finishing Touch continues at the Lady Lever Art Gallery until December 11 2011. Read our Preview.
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