Fetch my pipe and slippers
With British-made slippers enjoying an upturn in sales, Matthew Dennison discovers why now’s the perfect time to slip into something more comfortable
Matthew Dennison slips into something more comfortable
IN 1829, the editor of The Edinburgh
Literary Journal offered his readers an encomium on the subject of slippers. ‘Without slippers, winter would be merely a season of greatcoats and sore throats;—without slippers summer would be nothing but a few months of perspiration and white trousers… To winter, slippers impart all its fireside comfort,—to summer all its refreshing coolness.’ On the evidence of a recent upturn in slipper sales reported by leading British manufacturers, it’s a view that continues to win adherents.
Happily, both for the sartorially discerning and those with an interest in the well-being of Britain’s traditional shoemakers, the slippers currently enjoying a particular vogue are made in this country, from velvet, with quilted-satin linings and leather soles and heels, cut and lasted by hand using traditional techniques. And at Crockett & Jones and Oliver Brown, there is even a consensus among customers about the colour of the moment: navy blue, most often without monogramming or embroidered decoration.
At Oliver Brown, Kristian Robson attributes the resurgence in popularity of this highly traditional piece of men’s footwear to the continuing impact of Downton
Abbey, with its focus on luxurious formal clothing, but it’s also the case that velvet slippers have lately made their way on to international catwalks, showcased by designers such as Prada.
As Jason Simmonds of Devon-based shoemakers Herring tells me, the slippers in question—laceless, pull-on, tab-fronted designs—are more accurately described as ‘house shoes’ ‘as they have the same lasted shape, toe and heel shapers that a welted shoe would have, but with a much thinner sole and luxurious velvet uppers’.
Their structural resemblance to a shoe, according to James Fox of Crockett & Jones, is also key to their comfort: such slippers hold their shape and support the foot during wear. This is the style of footwear usually called a Prince Albert slipper, after Queen Victoria’s consort, who popularised a similar design in the 1840s. Appropriately, given the design’s royal origins, Herring’s bestselling slippers are the velvet Monarch and tweed Balmoral designs.
Throughout their long history in this country, slippers have existed as an alternative to shoes, chiefly for indoor wear. Scottish Treasury accounts from the end of the 15th century record payments made to shoemakers called Ryche and Home for both shoes and slippers: in 1489, ‘to Ryche cordynar [cordwainer or shoemaker] for xxx payre of schone [shoes] and xxx paire of pantonis [‘pantofles’ or slippers]’, and in 1494 ‘to Home the cordinare [cordwainer or shoemaker], for schone, brodykinnis [buskins or boots] and pantuiffillis ‘pantofles’ or slippers]’. In his best-known polemic, The
Anatomie of Abuses of 1585, 16th-century pamphleteer Philip Stubbes took a predictably curmudgeonly line: ‘I see not to what good uses serve these pantofles [slippers], except it be to wear in a private house, or in a man’s chamber to keep him warm?’ As the distinction between shoes, boots and slippers in the early Scottish sources quoted indicates, this was indeed the point, with shoes and slippers serving distinct purposes—as has mostly remained the case.
A painting from the late 17th century in the V&A depicts a tapestry-hung bedchamber in some disarray, through which scampers a tiny dog, making away with a slipper. That the footwear in question is apparently made from the same crimson fabric as the bed hangings, chair covers and tablecloth reinforces their status as for indoor wear only—all of a piece with the room for which they were chiefly intended.
This is not exclusively the case, however. At Oliver Brown, Mr Robson notes velvet slippers being worn with everything from jeans to dinner jackets and not only at home, given that their leather soles permit light wear outdoors.
Nor are such public outings for slippers an innovation. In the second decade of the 18th century, Court gossips noted that Caroline of Ansbach, wife of the future George II, danced in slippers at a ball at St James’s Palace and, in the 1940s, actor Clark Gable matched the colour of his slippers to his shirt whether at home or elsewhere.
‘Without slippers, winter would be merely a season of greatcoats and sore throats