Updated: Sep 22
Beginning in the 17th Century and throughout the 18th Century, buckles were an important element of dress. They served both a functional purpose and a decorative purpose. There are many different kinds of buckles. This article focuses specifically on colonial shoe and knee buckles, their function, role in fashion, and their styles and designs. All of the buckles in the cover photo above were found by CT Todd.
Shoe buckles came into fashion many decades before knee buckles. Colonial shoe buckles first came into fashion around the middle of the 17th century. The earliest colonial shoe buckles were rather simple or plain and not all that appealing to the eye. In the beginning their sole purpose was really just to fasten one's shoe together. Shoe buckles helped to ensure that a person's shoes remained firmly on their feet as they moved about. The design of the shoes worn by the colonists was such that ties or buckles were necessary in order to secure the shoe in place.
From the middle of the 17th century until the end of the 18th century shoe buckles were the most common method for fastening shoes together. Shoe buckles were made from a variety of different types of metal. There are two very basic components to every shoe buckle, the frame and the chape. The chape can be broken down further into multiple parts. The frame is the structure that holds the other parts of the buckle together. It is the most visible part of the buckle. The frame is also the largest part of the buckle and where the decorations are placed. The chape is the component of the buckle that makes attachment of the buckle to the shoe possible. It is in essence all the moving parts of the buckle. The style of the chape used varied slightly and changed somewhat over time. There are a few basic components to every chape though. There is the pin, the tongue, the hook or roll, and the spike(s) or tines.
The colonist’s shoes didn't function properly without buckles or ties. They wouldn't have stayed on their feet without them. It's one of those situations where you couldn't have one without the other. Well I suppose technically they could have had one without the other, but it wouldn't have done them a whole lot of good. There was a profound state of interdependence between the two items. Colonial shoes needed buckles and the buckles were designed solely for the shoes. Shoes didn't come with shoe buckles already attached to them though. The colonists had to purchase the shoe buckles separately. Attaching the buckles to the shoes wasn't a hard process. They were easy enough to attach and remove and many of the colonists owned multiple pairs of shoe buckles. Shoe buckles were made to attach to the shoes using two latchets or straps and secure over the instep. Once the buckle is set on the shoe the chape is hidden from view and the only visible part of the buckle is it's frame.
In the 1660's and 1670's, shoe buckles were small in size, simple, and practical. There frames were square in shape. The buckle's pin was typically cast together with the frame. During the 1660's and 1670's shoe buckles were worn by men of distinction. They were a symbol of wealth.
By the 1680's shoe buckles had become a common method of fastening shoes and more and more men were wearing them. They still were small in size, only a few centimeters in length, and were rectangular in shape. Up until the 1720's, shoe buckles had square tongues that extended high in front of the ankle. These late 17th century and early 18th century buckles usually had drilled frames where the pin attached. Some still had cast pins though. Shoe buckles from 1690-1720 were often decorated with knops and scalloping, specifically over the pin holes. Shell and floral designs were also very common. Around the year 1700, they started to make shoe buckles that were convex in shape so that they fit over the foot more comfortably.
Example of Decoration Covering Pin Holes
Convex Shaped Shoe Buckles
By the year 1720, shoe buckles had become more elaborate. They became more about fashion. They were at least as much about fashion as they were about function. At the time shoe buckles were a common item of dress. Laces on your shoes were considered unseemly and unrefined. People wanted buckles. Men, women, and children wore them. The size of shoe buckles began to gradually increase between the years 1720-1770.
Child Size Shoe Buckles
By 1730, the popularity of the shoe buckle was well established to the point that they were considered a normal part of dress. Only the very poorest of people wore ties on their shoes. Everyone else wore shoe buckles. Shoe buckles were a symbol of status. The wealthiest of folks had fancy buckles made from silver. Brass and copper shoe buckles cost less than silver but were still considered desirable by many. There were also pewter and iron shoe buckles. A quick glance at a person's feet would give you a good idea of a person's wealth and social class. Some manufacturers even began creating shoe buckles that were made to look expensive at an affordable price.
It was around this time period that knee buckles first began being used to secure the knee band on man's breeches. Prior to this time, buttons had been used to accomplish the task. Men began using knee buckles along with buttons after the year 1735. Unlike shoe buckles knee buckles were worn exclusively by men. Knee buckles attach to a man's breeches at the knee band and were used to hold the breeches tightly below or above the knee. Knee buckles had another secondary purpose as well which was to hold up a man's stockings.
It can sometimes be challenging to tell the difference between small shoe buckles and knee buckles. Knee buckles were made in the same types of shapes and patterns as shoe buckles Knee buckles were usually worn so that the longer axis of the buckle was oriented vertically. You'll notice that on most knee buckles the pin terminals are located on the short axis of the buckle. This vertical orientation feature makes identification of knee buckles easier. Knee buckles were sometimes orientated horizontally too though. The shape of the chape used on knee buckles is another reliable identifying characteristic. Knee buckles generally have anchor shaped rolls that have half of a heart cut out design and they usually have double or triple tongues. Also, knee buckles were usually made in flat shapes, they don't have the dramatic convex shape that some of the shoe buckles have.
The decorations found on shoe buckles in the 1740's were very elaborate. It was during this time that gem set shoe buckles became extremely popular. Around the year 1750, oval and round frames became popular. Rectangular shoe buckles were still used as well though. During this time period, some of the buckles were plain or ordinary, but a great many of them had elaborate decorations. The style of the time period dictated for more flamboyant buckle patterns. Beaded borders, grooves, scrolls, twisted rope designs, scallop shells, and gadrooning were all popular designs seen on shoe buckles from this time period. The frames were also larger in size ranging from 50-70 mm in width.
Oval and Round Buckles
Matching Patterned Shoe & Knee Buckles
By the year 1750, knee buckles were common everyday item used to fasten men's breeches. The designs on knee buckles were similar to those found on shoe buckles. Scalloped edges, molded rope designs, simple grooves, and carved notches were all popular designs. Some knee buckles were plain with no designs. Compared to the intricate embellishments found on shoe buckles, the designs on knee buckles were fairly restrained. Knee buckles could be purchased separately or in sets with matching shoe buckles. Men often wore non-matching knee and shoe buckle sets together. The knee buckles often contrasted the shoe buckles quite nicely. Not every man wore knee buckles. People of low economic status generally didn't wear knee buckles. They couldn't afford them. During the 1750's it was fashionable for men to buckle their breeches above the knees. The knee buckles used in the 1750's were small, only 18 mm by 16 mm in size and most were square in shape.
After 1750, open work shoe buckles became quite popular. By the year 1760, shoe buckles were on average 65 mm in diameter or larger. Some shoe buckles were as large as 100 mm in diameter. The range of shoe buckles designs and decoration increased too. Shoe buckles were a focal point of fashion. The designs ranged from decorative motifs to molded ornamentation and engravings.
In the 1770's and 1780's the shoe buckles were large in size. Knee buckles were also relatively large in size, measuring 30 mm by 40 mm. Most clothing accessories during this period tended to be on the larger size. Oval and round frames were still popular. Large oval knee buckles were the most common type worn during the 1780's. Also, during this time period breeches began being buckled below the knee. Shoe buckles incorporated popular motifs, large embossments, bright cutting, and precious or semi-precious stones. Open worked shoe buckles were still in fashion as well.
During the 1790's shoe buckles gradually disappeared from fashion altogether. Shoe strings appeared and shoes of a simpler fashion and style became popular in the beginning of the 19th century. In the 1790's knee buckles were superseded by ties. Knee buckles continued to be worn by some men into the early part of 19th century.
Buckles were a valuable addition to ones wardrobe. They still are today. These days buckles on clothing are mostly for decoration. Who wants to be fastening all those clasps to get out the door? During the 18th century, shoe and knee buckles weren't just about fashion, they also served an imperative function as well. Shoe and knee buckles were both items of value and importance. They added fantastic style to the colonists’ everyday dress. I hope that you enjoyed reading this blog and viewing all the wonderful photos. Have a great week. Happy hunting!!
A Guide to the Artifacts of Colonial America by Ivor Noel Hume
American Artifacts of Personal Adornment, 1680-1820: A Guide to Identification and Interpretation by Carolyn White