You are what you wear on your feet: For June Swann, a boot is a clue to personality as well as social history. Paula Weideger talked to her

Paula Weideger
Sunday 23 August 1992 23:02

'If June Swann doesn't know what a shoe is, nobody does,' said Jill Spanner at the Museum of London's costume collection. 'She's the world's leading authority on historic shoes.'

I first heard of Ms Swann while visiting Erddig, the great, romantic country house in North Wales. Jeremy Cragg, the National Trust's head steward, was showing me a pair of flattened, exhausted black leather shoes he had found walled up in a chimney there. Did the shoes belong to the master or a servant? When were they put there and what was a shoe doing in the chimney anyway? 'I must call June Swann,' he said. 'She's the doyenne of footwear.'

Five years ago Ms Swann retired as keeper of the shoe and boot collection at the Central Museum and Art Gallery in Northampton, a town known for its footwear industry. However, she is still extremely busy as a footwear detective. When I rang she had just returned from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where she is cataloguing a shoe collection, and soon she will be heading for Toronto. Yes, she would be coming to London, but cases to solve at the V & A would take all her time. We arranged a meeting at her former perch in Northampton.

Ms Swann has the confidence of an expert. Within minutes of saying hello we were looking at what was on view out of the more than 4,000 items in the boot and shoe collection. Along two walls stood huge cast-iron examples of early shoe manufacturing machinery. A long, low casing contained one of the world's best collections of shoe buckles.

'One day in the Seventies I had this phone call,' Ms Swann recalled, standing in front of the rows of glittering buckles. 'It was from Mrs Hull Grundy. 'I'm dying,' she said. 'Would you like my shoe buckle collection?' '

In fact, it was eight years before Anne Hull Grundy, one of this country's most discerning collectors of jewellery, did die, but the buckles came to the Central Museum straight away.

Without having to consult a label or a note (though aware of every label that had vanished since she retired, every accessory that had disappeared, every boot incorrectly displayed), Ms Swann began talking about the amazing variety of shoes and boots that filled the tall, old-fashioned wood-framed cases.

'I think footwear gives more away about people's attitudes to society than clothes,' she said as she darted between the cases. I began to understand what she meant: social history, finance, craftsmanship, fashion, the politics of museum financing, superstition, trade secrets, sexual politics and patriotism all found their way into her conversation. It was clear that by focusing on shoes she had seen into a rich world.

Asked about the shoes I had been shown at Erddig, Mrs Swann said: 'It's a common superstition.' More than 900 examples of shoes that had been hidden away have been sent to Northampton for identification. 'Children's shoes were found walled up in Ely cathedral. Rather 'tarty' shoes in a chapel. There have been shoes found under the roofs in houses, in orphanages, schools. . . .

'By the 15th century this walling-in of shoes was used as a protection. The shoe stands in for the person, so it guards all the entry points - the doors, windows, chimneys, roof.'

But why shoes? Why not, say, a shirt, or a scarf? 'The shoe is the only garment you wear that retains your shape and your personality,' Ms Swann explained. 'You take off your clothes, they're just a heap of rags on the floor. But the shoe is moulded to your foot. It's got the essence of the wearer in it. You catch sight of your shoes in the distance, it can give you a nasty shock.'

Though most of the shoes on view are English, there is one case of foreign specimens. A floppy item looking more like a crude hairnet than a shoe was particularly unnerving. This Australian aboriginal specimen was in fact made of emu feathers and hair - human hair, possibly mixed with human blood. It played a part in revenge killing. 'You can't tell which way the footprints are going,' Ms Swann pointed out, 'so the wearer can't be followed.'

The same case holds several fine examples of North American moccasins. 'Don't let anyone tell you that the American Indians were savages,' Ms Swann declared. 'That embroidery is as exquisite as anything being done in Europe at the time.'

She added: 'My anthropologist friends over there tell me that the Indians never ever copied European styles, but they bloody well did.'

The Indians even sold the uppers to European women, who had them made up into shoes in London and Paris.

Making moccasins was squaws' work. But it is not only in the tepee that women have played their part in shoe-making. To this day it is women who stitch the uppers in shoe factories. Traditionally, they have earned less than the men, who stitch the lowers - the tougher material on the rest of the shoe.

We looked at delicate shoes covered in star-studded silks, petit point and softest kid. The flat, beribboned white slippers worn by Queen Victoria on her wedding day are on view in a royal display. 'English women were notorious for their plain, sensible shoes,' Ms Swann noted. But not by the Roaring Nineties: these glace kid tasselled boots have 6 1/2 in heels.

'This is the period when the gentleman always gives you his arm,' Ms Swann observed, 'and your parasol is very tall. I'm sure that's the only way you stood up in these things.'

Being big-footed myself, I noted that there had been others of my ilk in the 19th century. 'Yes, they get big in the 1880s and 1890s. We're talking about votes for women,' Ms Swann explained. 'Some of them are extremely big in the 1790s, too,' she continued. 'Liberty, equality, big feet.'

When freedom for their gender and their limbs was not in fashion, women stuffed their feet into shoes too small for them. Or worse. 'Round about 1867, when anaesthetics were first developed,' Ms Swann said, 'fashionable women would have the odd toe or two amputated.'

(This grisly marriage of masochism and vanity continues. Not long ago I met an otherwise canny businesswoman who had had her toes 'shortened' so she could wear prettier shoes.)

One of the most beautiful shoes in the collection was also one of the plainest: flat, soft black leather with a square toe and an elasticised gusset. The workmanship was superb: both the hand-sewn soles and uppers have 44 stitches to the inch.

'It was made by a lad in 1830,' Ms Swann said. He lived not far from where we were standing and had just completed his apprenticeship. This 'occasioning' shoe had been made to show manufacturers the very best he could produce. 'It's the only one that I know for certain has survived,' Ms Swann said. 'And it's got the earliest surviving use of latex I know of.'

Two hours had passed and we were only part way through the collection. We decided to break for lunch.

Was it an Imelda Marcos-like passion for shoes that had led Ms Swann to her life's work? No, not at all, she said. It was chance. And necessity. When she left college as a geography graduate in 1949 she couldn't find a job. 'I was getting desperate,' she recalled. When she heard there was an opening at the museum, she applied. 'I thought, 'Oh well, it will do to be going on with.' '

She started work in 1950 and stayed for 38 years. Ms Swann was hooked.

'One of the first jobs I did was reorganising the stores and starting to catalogue the shoes. I realised none of the books in print were any use.'

Ms Swann began studying paintings and novels, every source she could think of that would give her insight and information about shoes and boots. When in the late Sixties Christie's began its costume auctions she started buying historic shoes for the museum. Her knowledge and the collection's importance developed in tandem. 'I eventually realised I was working with what had become the world's best collection of footwear. There's nowhere else you can go,' she observed ruefully.

Though she is enormously proud of the achievements of Northampton's shoemakers and manufacturers, she notes that the town's shoe collection has struggled without the financial support she believes it deserves as 'a national treasure'. For 36 of the years June Swann laboured at the museum, she had to do what she called 'an impossible job' of conservation, acquisition, cataloguing and display.

Corporate sponsorship was not a possibility. Northampton's shoe industry has not exactly flourished in the second half of the 20th century. 'I didn't have the heart to ask,' Ms Swann said.

Now there are signs that the collection is deteriorating. Items are missing from shoes and boots, labels are gone and the room itself is windowless and unattractive. There had been two other rooms as well. One was set up in 1913 as a model of a workplace by four men who had used the shoe-making machines on view. 'It looked absolutely beautiful,' she said. 'It was full of


Ms Swann has written a book, Shoes, and is now at work on a dictionary of 700 words connected with shoes and shoe-making. 'I'm trying to find the history of each word. Some go back to Saxon times and change their meaning as the object they describe changes its shape.'

She is including contemporary quotations and illustrations. Some of her references predate any in the OED. 'I learn something new about shoes every day,' said Ms Swann.

'Shoes' by June Swann is published by B T Batsford at pounds 14.95.

(Photograph omitted)

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