Make or buy renaissance shoes?
Most serious reenactors will agree that the most essential part of historical reenactment costumes are period correct renaissance shoes (unless the period in history in which you reenact isn’t the renaissance- in that case, try Civil War shoes or see the accessories page above for other options). Luckily, finding historically accurate Elizabethan shoes, Tudor shoes, and other renaissance period shoes is easier than you’d think. And, believe it or not, it’s easy to make renaissance shoes with or without a pattern!
I know, that doesn’t sound logical. After all, later periods have formed shoes, complete with heels, some boots even had their soles pegged instead of stitched! But medieval shoes and renaissance shoes are from a simpler time, in a very literal sense. In fact, the most common type of shoe in this time period is called a bag shoe or bog shoe. These are made with a single piece of leather per foot, and is basically wrapped around the foot and tied in the back around the heel/ankle, and gathered in the front and either stitched shut or tied shut. The front of the shoe actually usually only covered the toes, and the whole thing looks a lot like a non-elasticized slipper. In fact, you may occasionally see women wearing slippers at renaissance faires, particularly of the popular Isotoner slipper variety, or a cheap off brand (they are, after all, crossing over mud, mulch, rocks, and pavement!).
If you’re not interested in perfect historical accuracy- perhaps you dress the bare minimum just to have access to the awesome food and fights in the SCA, or like to play a lady on the weekends at the local renaissance festival, or only need the costume for Halloween or a school play- you can easily get away with ballet slippers, Chinese flats, MaryJanes, simple canvas shoes (the kind with the elastic band at the front, not the kind that you lace up), or clogs. Some of us with bad feet even opt to wear our Crocs to the rennaissance faire!
Men and women dressing as pirates and outlaws have it even easier. Boots are perfectly acceptable for most male characters, though plain cowboy boots are probably closer to period than combat boots. Some work boots can pass muster, though, if the bar is set low. However, mens renaissance shoes really aren’t very different from womens renaissance shoes. After all, shoes were simply a practical item at that time for most people. They were made quickly and with the ability to be quickly and cheaply replaced when they wore out.
The bag shoes that I mentioned above are suitable for both women and men, as well as children. However, if you purchase ready made shoes, it will be much trickier to find the correct size than if you make your own. Buying period shoes really is the best way to go, though, if you lack confidence in your sewing skills, or don’t have the equipment to sew leather. Thin, soft leather is fine for making the shoes, but you’ll want thicker leather to add to the sole, otherwise you’ll feel much the same as if you’re walking around in your socks, and they’ll last about as long.
The modern Ghillie Brogues that are used for Irish dance are actually based on the original bag shoes. While they certainly are modern, they’re cute as heck, and most reenactors won’t nit-pick about a thing like that. You can even get away with Roman sandals/Roman boots, and even what we used to call “Jesus joggers” (cork sole with 2 or 3 buckled leather straps across the front).
Another option is to actually attend a reenactment event or renn faire. At most faires and festivals of a decent size there will be at least one shop that custom makes rennaisance shoes and boots. Often they’ll have some stock of generic sizes available for purchase straight away, but if you have the time and money, it would be well worth having them custom make a pair of shoes for you. How each artisan measures your foot will vary- some will literally take measurements of your foot, some will use duct tape around an old sock as you wear it, and cut it off to form a basic pattern. Some will take castings of your foot, and there may be other methods that I’m not aware of. This will all cost more than purchasing a stock size, but having shoes or boots that are custom fitted to your feet, and only your feet, is a great way to pamper yourself. It’s a rare service in our modern era of mass production, and I say take advantage of it when and where you can!
Whether you choose to make or buy renaissance shoes, make certain that they fit well before wearing them out of doors, and definitely before driving in them! For safety’s sake.