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Mary Jane shoes: Tracing their history from Henry VIII to Miuccia Prada

Mary Jane shoes: Tracing their history from Henry VIII to Miuccia Prada

Just a little fashion nerdery

Text: Ryan Sng


Providing easy-to-fasten support for low-cut shoes, the oft-maligned Mary Jane has endured throughout the ages with admirable tenacity. Prada and Marni fall 2018's runways were awash in them, leaving us to wonder: why now? We dip our toes into the history of this strappy survivor, and walk you through the best versions the season has to offer.

Despite their primary associations with old-fashioned school uniforms and semi-formalwear for girls, Mary Janes — which only earned that moniker fairly recently, from a turn-of-the-century comic strip character — were originally a unisex style, worn mostly by men. Change was in the wind in the 20th century. Women co-opted the Mary Jane just as we did the colour pink, and largely destroyed their appeal for men (#masculinitysofragile). Their loss, our gain! 

It's hard to imagine the slightly defanged Mary Jane being anything other than safe and saccharine, but its seeming girlishness (most conspicuous on John Tenniel's illustrated Alice and dimple-cheeked child star Shirley Temple) has been subverted to great effect over the years.

Jazz Age flappers provoked society. Our ancestors smoked openly, wore excessive makeup and petted with the reckless abandon of young girls playing grown-ups, all while they adopted signifiers of pre-pubescent girlhood like flattened busts, shapeless clothing and shorter (though never as short as most think) hemlines. Mary Janes formed a crucial part of this coquettish image, and were eventually absorbed into the non-flapper — i.e. most women's — wardrobes. One likes to imagine that the Mary Jane was favoured for dancing one's head off, thanks to its optimal balance between foot exposure and security.

They reared their head anew during the '60s Youthquake. Once again, the sexuality of girls on the cusp of womanhood provided the fuel on which pop culture fed. This era of prominence coincided not only with the sexual revolution, but also with the gradual pornification of the arts: within a decade, Twiggy's almost school-girlish Mary Janes morphed into the decidedly aggressive peep-toe platforms worn by Jodie Foster's under-aged hooker in Taxi Driver. Guy Bourdin, meanwhile, gleefully shot disembodied, Mary-Janed women in suggestive setups in several of his campaigns for shoemaker Charles Jourdan.

A little later, strappy Mary Janes became (and remain) a staple for rock singer Courtney Love, whose '90s kinderwhore stylings conveyed a slightly-soiled, violated femininity; her look dovetailed neatly with a musical body of work that zeroed in on sexual violence, lost innocence and female suffering. In parallel, Mary Janes popped up in most sub-genres of the Japanese Lolita style, which originated in the '60s, though it only reached its apogee in the 2000s. Unified by its exaggerated, almost sickly sweet femininity, Lolita fashion as a whole has been interpreted as a playful, semi-resigned protest against the infantilisation of women in Japanese society.

While the Mary Jane's power has been dampened by the retrospective airbrushing of its earlier proponents, all the themes it has played vessel to seem increasingly potent in the zeitgeist, making the shoe a largely untapped lightning rod. So whether cut with a literal rectangular toe box — the Tudor versions still hadn't figured out the left and right foot thing yet, and were umm... sexily dubbed cow mouth shoes — or pointed to the extreme à la master sadist Roger Vivier, we highly recommend strapping into some Mary Janes this season.

There's a pair for everyone, no matter if you're railing against the patriarchy or choosing to quietly dismantle it from within. Fall 2018's selection encompasses the classically feminine where powdery pink shades, rhinestones and velvet abound, to the slightly off-kilter, such as Prada's logoed, jagged heel in traffic cone orange or Bottega Veneta's cutout flats with chunky rivets.

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