According to the Handbook of English Costume in the Eighteenth Century, pumps in the 1700s had thin pliable soles, low heels and were buckled or occasionally tied over the tongue. They were originally worn by acrobats and running footmen (attendants who ran beside or behind the carriages of aristocrats) owing to their pliability and were also sported by dandies for the elegant manner in which they made feet look smaller.
Having fallen out of style by the 1760s their popularity was revived at the turn of the nineteenth century when they became a distinctive part of evening dress in contrast to the riding boots then associated with daytime attire. They featured very short vamps (the part that covers the top of the foot) and initially had broad ribbon or buckles but the latter option became relegated to Court and military wear over the years
The 1830 British book The Whole Art of Dress provides a very detailed description of the pump later in the Regency period:
Shoes can only be divided into two classes, long quarters and short quarters, that is dress and undress; the dress being generally termed pumps, and are always adopted in full evening costume, as being absolutely indispensable to etiquette. These should always be made of Spanish leather. In the present fashion, which is very well contrived for showing off the feet, the sides of the shoe should not be above an inch and a half high, and the leather not proceeds above the same height over the toe; only, in fact, just sufficient to keep firmly on the foot. The tie should be of a broad ribbon, made into a small double bow. Buckles are only used in the army, navy, and marines, and should be set with brilliants.
Pump, circa 1810-1829.
1830 dress boot from The Whole Art of Dress.
The Whole Art of Dress also describes a recently introduced alternative to the pump called a “dress boot-shoe” which was acceptable for dinner dress but not the more formal ballroom dress. It was in the shape of a Wellington boot with the upper portion constructed of black cloth or India rubber (natural rubber). Once covered by trousers, the overall effect was that of a dress shoe and stockings but without the bother of wearing silk hose or tying bows.
According to a British menswear periodical published six years later “varnished boots (i.e. half boots)” were by then in equal favor with “dancing pumps” (“varnished” being a synonym for patent leather). However, this trend apparently did not meet with everyone’s approval: an American etiquette book published the same year sternly warned that “Those persons who dance in boots,–and many fools of fashion do it—degrade themselves and insult society”.
Oscar Wilde with silk stockings
Whether worn with breeches or pantaloons, evening dress stockings were white or natural colored silk. By the 1820s black silk was becoming a popular alternative.
Despite the protestations, boots became increasingly popular except at the most formal of occasions. “Boot” could refer to either high-buttoning shoes with cloth tops or to gaiters which in turn referred to either spats or what we call Chelsea boots today. (The latter was also often referred to specifically as a “congress gaiter”). Whatever the style, boots were constructed of patent leather with thin, elegant soles. It was also expected that they be kept in immaculate condition as explained in the 1897 British etiquette manual, Manners for Men:
[With evening dress,] patent leather shoes or boots must be worn. It would be unpardonable to appear in thick walking-boots or shoes, and the necessity for immaculately polished footgear has cost the young man of the present day many a cab. His varnished shoes must show no trace of mud or dust. To tell the truth, he often carries a silk handkerchief in his pocket wherewith to obliterate the traces of the latter.
Towards the end of the century, pumps began to feature bows of a corded material called Petersham.
Throughout the era, evening stockings were generally black silk.
Duke of Edinburgh breeches with opera pumps
During the Edwardian era, patent-leather shoes eventually replaced dress boots with white tie and black tie and even began to encroach on the popularity of pumps. Dark colored socks were of mixed acceptance although midnight-blue hose was kosher with evening suits of the same hue. Lisle was permitted as were self-clocks; with the dinner jacket, white clocks were also often permitted.
1915 Formal shoes and boots
1921 Formal sock ad by illustrator J.C. Leyendecker, best known for his Arrow shirt ads.
From 1913 to the present, white tie and black tie have called for either pumps or laced shoes (despite occasional advice that the former are no longer worn). Both were typically patent leather until the 1950s when allowances began to be made for highly polished calfskin. Period illustrations show that pump bows were always ribbed and could either have a pinched or flat knot.
1930s Vintage Patent Leather Oxfords with evening shoelaces and pumps or court shoes with a deep cut vamp opening and silk bow
In 1934, a novel laced-shoe was introduced for men who wanted the swank of the pump without its practical shortcomings. “Exact fit is essential in the wearing of the pump,” explained an Apparel Arts article debuting the style, “and even then the tendency to catch at the instep uncomfortably and the looseness at the heel has discouraged the otherwise strong in heart.” The answer was a dress shoe of patent leather with minimal stitching and flat silk ribbon for laces. Despite the fact that it disappeared by the end of the decade it remains the benchmark in formal lace-ups to this day.
In formal hose, ribbed silk socks debuted in the 1930s. Wool was introduced as alternative in the 1940s and then nylon in the 1950s. The previous allowance for self or white clocks faded away around the 1960s. What remained constant throughout was the strict limitation of colors to either black or midnight blue.
Semi-Formal Evening Dress 1930s – DB Tuxedo in midnight blue with peak lapel, satin facing and carnation boutonniere, homburg, white silk scarf and opera pumps
The codifying of warm-weather formal wear in the 1930s encouraged a number of informal innovations in black tie.
Albert Slippers are an option with your dinner jacket at home
A 1939 Esquire pictorial on tropical formal attire suggested “patent leather monk front dress shoe, patent leather pumps, blue velvet formal house slipper with gold monogram, worn by well-dressed men at house parties in Palm Beach and other Southern resorts.” The monk shoe trend didn’t last long but formal slippers have remained acceptable for hosts of less formal home-based black-tie affairs.
Beyond that, the rules for footwear remained quite conservative until the peacock revolution of the 1960s introduced numerous novel incarnations.