All about Mary Jane shoes

All about Mary Jane shoes

Image by Franz Langhammer

It’s that time of year again – family, great food, and the ability to finally wear layers! The vintage fashionista in me gets very excited for this season. Cozy sweaters with brooches, scarves, fun jackets, colorful tights under petticoats and skirts: it all makes me so happy.

Planning holiday outfits is such fun and after you choose the necklace, earrings, and purse you’re left with shoes. They are the foundation to any stunning ensemble and perhaps no choice is more classic than a sweet, feminine little number with quite the history. Let’s learn all about Mary Jane shoes – and share your holiday prep plans in the comments…

What’s in a name you may ask, well the name Mary Jane comes from a comic strip started by the Brown Shoe Company (talk about clever marketing). And we’ll talk more about this soon – but first let’s start with the basics. This company started in the late 1800s, as a result of the partnering of three Midwestern businessmen. The head partner, George Brown, cut his teeth in the industry after school. Not one to shy away from hard work (he was a farm boy after all), George worked his way up from shipping clerk to top salesman. Once he was ready to start his own company, he had a wealth of experience to draw upon. If you could think of a woe of the turn-of-the-century consumer, he’d have a clever solution to offer up. Armed with this confidence, George and his partners created a full business – managing everything from design to manufacturing to selling. Their St. Louis-based firm was humming along quite nicely when a brash young upstart came in with a dream. His name: John Bush. His dream: marketing kids’ shoes.

John’s timing was impeccable. The 1904 World’s Fair was practically on their doorstep and they used the platform to give the public a peek into manufacturing. Their booth was popular, but another one was just as crowded: the mainstream cartoonist Richard Fenton Outcault was there peddling his wares (character designs). Richard’s portfolio included Buster and his puppy companion, Tige. John saw potential and soon Buster Brown was part of the family.

Fun fact: the rights for Buster and Tige sold for $200. In today’s dollars that is $2,600.

A boy and his dog, while cute, left out a key consumer: little girls eager to run and play with their friends. Mary Jane, Buster’s sweetheart, filled that role by personifying Brown’s strapped and buckled shoes. While Mary Jane played second fiddle to Buster’s antics in the comic strips, the shoes she represented became an icon in their own right.

All about Mary Jane shoes

Image from LACMA

By the time the Jazz Age arrived, Mary Jane’s were starting to evolve. On the silver screen, Shirley Temple skipped about in them during Baby Takes a Bow. It was then that the buckled shoes started to be associated mainly with girls, breaking away from its mainly gender-neutral past.

Mary Jane made the leap from childhood to womanhood during the 1960s. Mary Quant paired them with her mini-skirts and Twiggy was often photographed in them – adding a chic flavor to this classic shoe. The traditional couture houses didn’t miss a beat – during this time you see beautiful satin versions (also called bar shoes) gracing Dior’s runways. The next two decades gave way to other shoe silhouettes but in the 90s the grunge and punk rock group gravitated to the sweet contrast of Mary Jane’s. When you think about it – I can’t identify another shoe design with such staying power. (If you think of one shout it out in the comments!) Maybe it’s the fact that you can dress up and dress down Mary Jane’s so easily; they can be sugary sweet or tough as nails. Sounds a lot like the complex awesomeness of the ladies who wear them…

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