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When shoe buckles were covered in diamonds

Investigating the extravagant lengths taken by fashionable people in past centuries to unashamedly display their wealth on their shoes, and how a revolution led to the functional component commonly in use today.

by Stuart Morgan

Image © LACMA

While historically many shoe designs have been slip-on styles without using any fastening system, most have incorporated some form of fastener for security, comfort and safety. As an example, overshoes worn by the Ancient Egyptians over 3,500 years ago were made of reeds and fastened with reed straps. Over the millennia that followed, innovators secured their footwear with hooks and eyes, laces and buttons. However, from around the mid-17th century, a component burst onto the English fashion scene which was to play a long-lasting role in shoe design – the oversized and often highly decorated buckle.

Buckled shoes had been worn by monks in England during Mediaeval times, before this method of securing the footwear fell from general use and the other previously-mentioned techniques of securing a shoe became popular. Once shoe buckles began to replace laces and other ties in the mid-17th century, how were these fixings used? Cloth ‘latchets’ (flaps) at the top of each facing were drawn through the buckles to keep the shoe tight over the instep. While they served a functional purpose, there was also the opportunity to make buckles into decorative objects.

At that time, flamboyant cavalier ‘gentlemen’ looking to wear ostentatious footwear reintroduced the buckle and made sure these were highly decorated to contribute to the overall finery of their attire, which often featured brightly coloured clothing with elaborate trimmings and lace collars and cuffs, and plumed hats.

Over the years, buckles were made from a variety of materials, including brass, silver (or silver gilt) and steel. Showing that they were far more than mere functional items, versions for formal wear were often set with diamonds, imitation jewels or pieces of quartz.

Toned down styles


King Charles II (1630 to 1685) wearing shoes with the ultimate in ostentatious buckles decorated with precious gemstones

Such highly-decorated shoes contrasted starkly with the English ‘Puritan’ movement of the 16th and 17th centuries, the adherents of which wore plain clothing, including footwear without decoration. Following the English Civil Wars of 1642 to 1651, this plain styling for shoe buckles became standard for footwear in England and lasted for the duration of Oliver Cromwell’s tenure as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. This type of shoe buckle was also viewed as essential by many people who emigrated to the English colonies in North America. However, a resurgence of finery came during the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, when King Charles II came to the English throne and high fashion was once more in favour.

Indicating how the fashion for conspicuous shoe buckles had caught the public’s attention, famous English diarist Samuel Pepys wrote in his entry for 22nd January 1660: “This day I began to put on buckles to my shoes, which I have bought yesterday of Mr Wotton.” Some traditionalists took exception to the new fashion, and in 1693 a letter published in a British newspaper complained about buckles replacing ribbons for fastening shoes and knee bands.


Women’s ‘Spitalfields’ silk damask shoes with ornate buckles (1740s)

The rise of the ‘dandy’

During the 18th century, men of distinction made extra effort to draw attention to themselves and their status by wearing shoe buckles encrusted with semi-precious metals and jewellery. So-called ‘Macaronis’ (a pejorative term referring to men who ‘exceeded the ordinary bounds of fashion’) – also called ‘dandies’ – sported precious metal-trimmed buckles and had metal plates fitted to the heels of their shoes to make an audible click as they walked along the cobbled streets.

Silver or gold gilt buckles were popular for everyday shoes, and bejewelled alternatives were worn on special occasions in order to stand out from the rest of their social contemporaries. Jewellers and shoemakers were happy to accept the challenge to keep up with demands for novelty designs. However, parading through the city streets wearing such valuable footwear accessories led to a sharp increase in robberies, and many men took to wearing buckles decorated with less costly costume jewellery.


Men’s English shoe buckles c.1777 to 1785


Women’s shoe buckles from the 1780s decorated with paste stones

Other styles available

Not every wealthy person wanted to appear so pretentiously ornamented, but they still wanted to present an air of ‘class’. This led to more sober styles of shoe buckle being designed which could still display a suitable level of affluence.

Of course, very few of the population could afford such expensive buckles, but they still wanted to be fashionable. The demand for affordable yet attractive shoe buckles became so enormous that a complete industry was created. This was centred in the English Midlands city of Birmingham, where thousands of people were employed in buckle production.

Most buckles affixed to shoes at this time were made in England and were thereafter exported to the colonies. Buckles became coveted trophies and were handed down within families. As semi-precious metals were sometimes used in their construction, buckles were often displayed on belts which were worn around the waist.

Mozart’s buckle

Buckles owned by famous figures of the past have proved irresistible to collectors when they have come up for sale. For example, a single shoe buckle worn by legendary classical music composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 to 1791) was sold in 2017 at an auction in Vienna for €12,500 ($13,642). The buckle had been owned by the family of Mozart’s shoemaker since the 18th century and was purchased by an anonymous buyer. The final price was considerably above the estimated value of €2,000 to €4,000 ($2,183 to $4,365) that had been set by the auction house.

The collector reportedly received the engraved metal buckle in an ornate reliquary shrine, along with a handwritten letter of authenticity stating that the item was passed down through the generations from Vienna master shoemaker Matthias Knoller. According to a 19th century biographer, while Mozart was performing a concert in the German city of Dresden in the spring of 1789, he kept time by by stamping his foot so forcefully that he broke a buckle off one of his shoes.

Revolution brings sudden change

Many of the men involved in the American Revolutionary War (1775 to 1783) wore quite plain shoe buckles. Archaeological excavations of battlefields and military campsites often find that the buckle is the only surviving part of a shoe when it has been buried in the ground for centuries, and buckles from the conflict have become highly prized by collectors. These finds are also are used by historians in order to date the locations being investigated.

While at the height of their popularity, the acceptance of such flamboyantly-decorated buckles on British gentlemens’ shoes appears to have been suddenly overturned as the result of a social and political upheaval across the English Channel – the French Revolution. This noteworthy event which finally ended in 1799, led to owning any example of ostentatious footwear being regarded by the ‘revolutionaries’ as a mark of rank and privilege, and therefore being a part of their defeated enemy’s culture.

With discontent of their lot in life also being rife among the general population in Britain, a certain level of support could also be felt there for the aims and achievements of the French revolution. The British ruling classes had genuine fear that the same bloodshed could also happen in their own country, so it seemed unwise to continually show off their wealth in such a decadent manner. At the same time, high-heeled footwear and other aristocratic fashions were largely abandoned – ‘just in case’. In the spirit of equality pervading at the time, the latchet tie form of securing a shoe, favoured by the French revolutionaries, was adopted.

British buckle manufacturers were now faced with a catastrophic loss of business. Therefore, in 1791, the owners of these companies attempted to halt the change in fashion by appealing for help from Prince George, who later became King George IV. While the prince did start to require the wearing of shoe buckles within his court, the decline in trade continued. Out of necessity, the manufacturers of steel buckles were forced to diversify into producing other goods, including cut steel jewellery. The use of ‘traditional’ shoe buckles was retained as part of British ceremonial and court dress until well into the 20th century. Examples of women’s footwear dating from 1815 show that by this time, laces had become the common way to fasten shoes.

Such a dramatic change in British shoe design did not affect the former American colonies, where the use of ornate buckles persisted. George Washington’s 1796 portrait by Gilbert Stuart depicts him as wearing large silver buckles with gilt studs, and as late as 1829, the blacksmith Pat Lyon shown in artist John Neagle’s portrait also wears silvery buckles.

Becoming functional

The Victorian era began with the queen’s accession to the British throne in 1837, and fashions quickly changed. However, while men’s footwear became more conservative, women continued to favour buckles, although for purely decorative purposes. Buckle designs of the early 19th century ranged from simple and utilitarian forms, to fanciful styles trimmed with lace and pearls which were worn by women in high society.   

From the mid-19th century, fastening of women’s (and sometimes men’s) boots and shoes by buttons down one side of the upper became the norm. Primitive elastic gussets also made an appearance around the same time. As straps on women’s shoes became the fashion – either as a single strap across the top of the foot or as a T-bar – these were generally secured by means of a button pushed through a reinforced button hole.

However, by the mid-1920s, small functional buckles as we know today had become standard. Large, ornate buckles eventually faded out of general fashion in the 1940s – with wartime restrictions no doubt contributing to their demise. Nevertheless, over the decades, designer still occasionally incorporated large buckles as purely decorative items on women’s shoes, and this has continued to our day.

Today, small functional buckles are standard fare on strappy women’s shoes. There is also a man’s shoe – the Monk – which is normally fitted with one or more small buckles to allow for both adjustment and security.

guenterguni |

Today, small functional buckles are standard fare on strappy women’s shoes

What if?

The history of the extravagant, diamond-encrusted shoe buckle worn by men was forever changed by a rebellion which led to the deaths of the French King and Queen, as well as countless wealthy aristocrats judged to be ‘enemies of the people’. We can only guess how long the fashion of wearing overly-ostentatious footwear would have continued in Britain if that revolution had never taken place. What is certain, however, is that this component now has a far more humble but even more essential role in much of the footwear which is being manufactured around the world.

How can we help?

Please contact SATRA’s footwear team ( for assistance with the testing of fastening systems.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 12 of the April 2023 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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