A brief history of the Mary Jane.

As obsessed as I am about fashion and clothing, it’s shoes that really do me in – ever since my first pair of strappy platforms in 1978, I’ve spent many of my waking hours searching for the perfect shoes and buying them in quantity when I find them because shoes are particularly prone to being worn out if you wear them, much more so than garments in general, and it’s heartbreaking when you’re forced to retire your favourite shoes. Inevitably, fashion will have moved on and you won’t be able to find any to your liking.

So after all these years I can tell you that my preferences have been narrowed down – I love Mary Janes. Mary Janes (in case you’ve been living under a rock) are the style of shoes with a strap across the instep – from there the heels will vary, the toes will vary, the colours, the fabrics, even the straps might vary. The strap allows you to run without worrying that they will fall off, but more importantly, they allow you to dance. I love high heels but I work on my feet all day and so they need to be comfortable – to look your best, it helps if you can forget what you’re wearing.

Rarely do my preferred styles come in fashion so I learnt long ago to trawl the second hand markets, and more recently, the interwebs – ebay and etsy provide good fodder so let me share some of my finds and along the way we can see a snippet of 20th century shoe history.

First up we have a style from ‘teens (about 1918) and fabulous. Cats Pyjamas Vintage is selling them on ebay – if you click on the image you can go to the listing. I should probably warn you at this point that I won’t necessarily agree with the datings the shoe sellers have put on them. They can be hard to date.


Photo courtesy Cats Pyjamas Vintage.

Next we have Sonia Delaunay, it’s the 1920s and she’s hard at work designing some fabulous textile or artwork. On her feet – are the shoes of my dreams. Aren’t they wonderful? Suitable for dresses or trousers, she looks like she could walk all day in them and charleston all night. About a two inch sassy little Louis heel – I have a pair like these – original ’20s and I’ve worn them within an inch of their lives and so now – very sadly – must desist lest they fall apart. I’m hoping to find a good cobbler to copy them for me.

Now I want to show you the ones that got away….I bid on these shoes at a Sydney auction in 1996 and went as high as I could but alas, was outbid. My pain was relieved when I discovered that my opponent was the Powerhouse Museum – and now I can visit them whenever I’m in town – they’re part of the permanent display and incredibly gorgeous. A variation on the Mary Jane, these are T-bar satin dancing sandals. How could you not have a wonderful time wearing these?


Photo courtesy Powerhouse Museum.

Whilst we’re on sandals, let’s look at the 1940s – a time when glamour was all important. These little beauties are strappy platform heels from the late ’40s. Not strictly a Mary Jane but the style wasn’t popular during the ’40s and I wanted to show you how different the styles are….okay, I cheated but the next one will be a Mary Jane.


Photo courtesy simplicityisbliss on etsy.

Okay, we’re into a very different world now – this sexy little number is from the late ’50s (or maybe sneaking into the ’60s) and not only has it a nice and sharp pointy toe, there is the stiletto and the Mary Jane strap has slid right down, so it’s not really holding your shoe on any more, more being decorative and a little bit cheeky.


Photo courtesy purevintageclothing on etsy.

The 1960s were greatly influenced by the rebellious spirit and style of the ’20s and so it’s not surprising that when the Mary Jane came back, it has similarities to the earlier style – these lovely two tone ones are by Joseph Larose and are much to my liking. If only they were my size! Available at Retro Dress, late ’60s.


Photo courtesy Retro Dress.

Styles changed rapidly in the ’60s – these amazing python platforms are from Posh Girl vintage and date from the late ’60s to early ’70s. You can see they owe a debt of inspiration to the late 1940s.


Photo courtesy Posh Girl Vintage.

In the late 1970s, styles returned to classic and elegant – as you can see from these T bar shoes on etsy.


Photo courtesy mellowdayss on etsy.

The pump or court shoe reigned supreme in the ’80s and so Mary Janes were thin on the ground – that’s when I discovered how wonderful tap or character shoes were (you can still get them from Bloch’s). This version is from the late ’80s and is a glorious purple – I miss all the colourful shoes of the ’80s.


Photo courtesy redlipstickthreads on etsy.

It was during the ’90s that the Mary Jane had a big resurgence, in all kinds of fanciful variations. Most of the MJs available online are from the ’90s, although beware, many are dated ’60s or ’80s. The platform also came back, as evidenced in this chunky style…


Photo courtesy storyofthings on etsy.

You may have noticed that the styles tend to cycle along the lines of pointy toe/round toe but there are also the odd square toes in there: late ’60s-early ’70s and again in the late 1990s- early 2000s. These ones are from about 1999-2000 and also incorporate the wedge heel that is seen sporadically.


Photo courtesy Glitz1 on etsy.

Happy Mary Jane hunting!

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12 comments

  1. Ahhh my favourite type of shoe too! You are right, they are a great shoe to work all day in and party all night!

  2. I love mary janes too!! They’re just about the only style of shoe which will stay on my foot (with the exception of complete lace-ups).

    Thanks for sharing.

  3. I love the green and white ones and the wedges! I hate wearing shoes and Mary Janes are always comfy. If you like character shoes, have a look at Flamenco shoes. Mine look a lot like the Sonia Delaunay ones! Flamenco-world.com has stunning Gallardo shoes in their online dance shop.

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