Who actually was Mary Jane?
Delving into where the name for this popular shoe style originated and investigates its modern incarnations.
Image © iStockphoto.com
During the European Renaissance period of the 15th and 16th centuries, well-to-do men wore low-cut shoes held on the foot by a single strap across the instep and fastened with a buckle or button. These fashionable people included King Henry VIII of England, who allowed official portraits to be painted showing him wearing this style of footwear.
After falling out of common use for some centuries, closed, low-cut shoes with such a strap – known as ‘bar shoes’ – reappeared in the late 19th century, but this time they appear to have been generally reserved for children. Having been called bar shoes for some decades, they became known as ‘Mary Janes’ very quickly in the 1900s.
What was behind this sudden change of name in the consciousness of the footwear-buying public? It all came down to a talented man’s imagination, his drawing pen, and his unerring sense of a good business opportunity. Mary Jane was a character created by American comic strip artist Richard Felton Outcault for his Buster Brown stories, which were first published in the New York Herald in 1902. This young girl was the sweetheart of the mischievous title character and was drawn from real life, being Outcault’s daughter bearing the same name.
An eye for a fast buck
In 1904, Richard Outcault travelled to the World’s Fair in St Louis and sold licenses to up to 200 companies for the right to use the Buster Brown characters in their product advertising. One of these businesses was the Brown Shoe Company (now Caleres), which recognised the marketing value of such a commercial association and reportedly paid USD 200 to Outcoult for licensing rights. The company also bought the rights for the Mary Jane character.
As part of its marketing strategy, Brown Shoe manufactured footwear bearing the Buster Brown and Mary Jane names, produced marketing collateral based around these comic creations and even hired actors to tour the country to perform in theatres and stores as the Buster Brown characters. While the other companies had also bought licences to base their marketing on the comic strip, Brown Shoe’s energetic efforts led to it becoming the brand most prominently associated with the Buster Brown characters. Before long, the single-strap style of shoe worn in the drawings by both Buster Brown and his girlfriend came to be known by her name – Mary Jane – and the label has endured to this day.
As indicated in Outcoult’s comic strip, this footwear was originally worn by both sexes. In fact, it was more commonly seen on boys than on girls during the early decades of the 20th century. Mary Janes began to be viewed as mainly a feminine shoe during the 1930s in North America and the 1940s in Europe, as boys started to wear more lace-up shoes instead. Another shift in perception was seen during the ’Roaring Twenties’, when Mary Janes moved from being children’s footwear back into the adult market, where they proved popular with many women as an important part of the ‘flapper’ ensemble.
Today, Mary Janes are often considered essentials for children up a certain age. The more formal or semi-formal classic styles are generally regarded as appropriate for school, with many establishments around the world actually requiring that girls wear them with their uniform. They may also be considered as the shoe of choice for young children attending certain religious ceremonies, weddings and parties.
Mary Janes for children are typically made with black leather which may have a patent finish, as well as one thin strap fastened by a buckle or button, a broad and rounded toe, thin outsoles and low heels. The use of touch-and-close tapes have made self-fastening possible even for very young children, and floral perforations are sometimes made to the seam or strap for added attraction.
Gaining a foothold in niche markets
Many styles for adults are available today. For example, platform-style Mary Janes have evolved since the late 1990s, with 10 to 30 mm (½ to 1 inch) outsoles and ‘chunky’ heels measuring 80 to 130 mm (3 to 5 inches), often featuring exaggerated buckles or grommets. In the early 2000s, the popularity of Mary Jane shoes for women exploded in the United Kingdom and then across Europe before reaching North America. Mary Janes of the new millennium often featured a large heel, and were made in a variety of colours and materials. Their popularity even reached beyond the mainstream markets, as they carved out a presence in the ‘Lolita’ fashion underground movement and punk, ‘psychobilly’ and goth subcultures.
Diyana Dimitrova | iStockphoto.com
The Mary Jane mule is another contemporary update of the old classic in which, as well as being backless, the traditional rounded and broad toe cap has been replaced with more sophisticated pointed or squarish varieties. These mules have proved popular with women to accompany ‘professional’ attire, although they typically provide less support and comfort than a closed variety. Designers have also produced Mary Jane clogs, which have become popular with some nurses and other professionals who are required to spend long hours on their feet. Orthopaedic versions for both children and adults have been made available, and there is even a unique style which fuses the classic shoe with a look reminiscent of casual sports footwear.
Leather is no longer the only upper material used in Mary Janes. They are now manufactured from cotton, suede or other durable materials. The outsole can be made from smooth leather, synthetics or rubber for improved grip, and incorporate metal taps if used for this style of dancing.
Mary Janes in celebrity culture
Mary Janes could also be seen in the movies. In 1934, six-year-old Shirley Temple wore white examples in the film ‘Baby, Take a Bow’, and a pair of her iconic tap dancing Mary Jane shoes – clearly on show in later performances – are on display in the Academy Museum in Los Angeles.
The style came to the fore again in the 1960s, when fashion designer Mary Quant put model Twiggy in a pair, thereafter helping to resurrect them as a fashion staple for women.
The young Princess Charlotte – daughter of the Prince and Princess of Wales and granddaughter of Britain’s King Charles III – is a fitting example of how classic-style Mary Jane shoes have held onto their timeless popularity, and she has been photographed wearing them on many occasions. No doubt this has influenced sales of the style to ‘Royal watchers’ around the world.
Anwar Hussein / Alamy Stock Photo
The name ‘Mary Jane’ has long outlived the character after which it was named – with publication of the comic strip having ended in 1923. This simple and very practical style has a tremendous following, both with parents buying for their young children and adults purchasing for themselves, and there is no sign of its popularity abating.
This article was originally published on page 32 of the October 2022 issue of SATRA Bulletin.