The 18th century began with lavish parties thrown by the wealthy, who competed to see who could have the most outrageous hairdo or the most elaborate clothing. However, due to the widespread political turmoil in Europe during the mid-18th century, the Neoclassical period of the late 1700s brought with it a dislike of luxury and extravagance, which affected even the design of footwear.
During the early 18th century, men moved from wearing heavy leather boots, which were practical for working and riding horses, to wearing elegant black shoes with elaborate buckles. However, during the late 18th century, as the ideals Neoclassicism took hold, these fancy shoes were discarded for political reasons. They were viewed as impractical and were replaced by sturdy boots, which made another appearance as the latest fashionable footwear for men.
Women's shoes began the 18th century, during the Rococo period, made of delicate fabrics with elaborate prints. However, during the more subdued Neoclassical period, these fabrics were replaced with woven linen in simpler, smaller prints, or with leather. Straps and buckles also disappeared from women's shoes, as they were seen as too extravagant. Men's shoes were generally made from leather, with a thick, tough piece for the sole, and softer, more flexible pieces for the sides.
During the Rococo period, shoes with high heels were the fashion. Some were so high and narrow, they needed to be reinforced with nails. Even the most stylish men wore shoes with low heels. During the Neoclassical period, the heel changed dramatically. The heel was lowered in the 1780s, and then disappeared almost completely by 1790, giving way to flat shoes with a rounded toe. Though some designers still made high-heeled shoes, flats were considered more desirable.
Simplicity was key in designing shoes for the men and women of the Neoclassical period. Prints were tamed with small floral patterns and tiny polka dots in muted colours. In place of the garish buckle of the Rococo period, shoes might be trimmed with a pleated ribbon or bow. The idea was to reflect the act of living simply in everyday dress, from the top of the head to the tip of the toe.