The Edwardian era was a time of great social change, a period of history in which the conservative values of the Victorian era were being overturned by women who wanted shared ownership of the world. In London and New York, suffragettes were demonstrating for equal rights with men, storming the bastions of patriarchy and vociferously raising questions about the domestic servility of womankind. In the intellectual circles of Vienna, Sigmund Freud was analyzing the relationship between human sexuality and repression, and in Paris, Paul Poiret revolutionized the elite world of haute couture.
For Poiret, mainstream Edwardian fashion made "overdecorated bundles" of women, so tightly swaddled were they in the frills, furbelows and frou-frou of such an extravagantly decorated look. Couturiers such as Callot-Soeurs, Doucet and Paquin in Paris were tightly corseting women into hourglass shapes with heavy full-length skirts and high-collared boned blouses that made physical activity difficult, and the feminine ideal called for enormous hair-dos padded out for bulk and requiring the ministrations of a maid throughout the day.
In Poiret's theatrical designs, staid Edwardian matrons were radically transformed into sensual, exotic beings, fleshy odalisques awaiting the attentions of their amour in an overheated Turkish harem or a deeply decadent opium den. His cavalcade of feminine types included Neoclassical nymphs in Empire-line tunics, Oriental femmes fatales in fiery orange and shimmering silver kimono gowns, and bewitching vamps in Indian turbans inspired by Diaghilev's Ballet Russes, which was scandalizing Paris in 1908. Poiret's gowns were shocking; they appeared to have no formal structure, no rigorously laced corsets underneath keeping warm flesh at bay—sensuality was now in vogue. His skirt shapes were also significantly straighter and shorter than ever before, perfect for showing off a shapely ankle rather than just the shy peep of a modest Victorian toe. Shoes came to the forefront of fashion like never before.
The New Woman
As the Edwardian foot became more visible, so tiny feet continued to be prized as erotic symbols of femininity. Many cultures love the small-footed woman; the bound foot of pre-modern China is the most extreme example of this cultural attitude—an attitude that suggests that men's feet are for walking and women's for attracting men. In the nineteenth century, such foot worship was openly displayed in the fashion for Viennese staggerers, boudoir shoes of such extravagant height and tiny length that they blatantly revealed their function was as a fetish object rather than a practicality.
Small feet were also considered a sign of good breeding and gentility, symptomatic of a woman who labored little and had someone willing to provide for her. Tiny feet were such visible signs of wealth and social status that many women were prepared to suffer in shoes two sizes too small to achieve the right effect. The subsequent pinching created a pain so excruciating that it discouraged walking and perpetuated a degree of domestic dependence.
Change was afoot, though—most notably seen in women's increased appearance on the city streets, whether shopping in the new cathedrals of consumption—the department stores—attending a matinee at the theater or undertaking philanthropic works among the city's poor. This new social mobility began to be reflected in the design of shoes, with the dainty thin-soled slippers of the Victorian era, which suggested a woman's place was in the home as a demure and decorative object, beginning to be replaced by a sturdier type of day shoe that copied design detail from men's footwear styles such as the Oxford.
Edwardian street shoes for women came in black or tan and had narrow toes, which became broader as the century progressed, arched insteps, Louis heels and leather soles. High-heeled buttoned or laced ankle boots with pliable "flexura" soles were an everyday fashion staple worn with the new tailor-mades or two-piece suits. This practical look was associated with the "New Woman," a career-driven creature who rejected the trivial decoration and discomfort of early Edwardian dress, a look that was becoming increasingly anachronistic in the brave new world of the twentieth century.