Sunday, June 7, 2015

Men’s Heels: The Stirrup, the Spur and the Boot? (Part 1)

Part 1 The Stirrup
Conventional thinking holds that the stirrup was developed in Asia to aid the physical balance of warriors in battle allowing mounted archers to stand in their stirrups and shoot their arrows. The stirrup was so successful that beginning in the 8th century and during several of the ensuing centuries it became part of the equine kit for all European male riders.  During the European medieval period, mounted Asian and Middle-Eastern archers wore a high-heeled shoe that is thought to have acted as a brake to stop the stirrup from riding up the leg. This heeled shoe has become the progenitor of the Western male high heel; at least that is how it is presented. This may be true, but over the years I have ridden horses and taken lessons to develop a good seat; something seems wrong with this logic of the heel and stirrup, at least for the average rider.

The heel and stirrup approach assumes that locking the heel against the stirrup provides stability.  Modern riding operates on the principle that the stirrup accepts the pressure of the foot at the ball of the foot, not the arch or heel. The stirrup provides a stable platform, but the weight of the rider should be carried down through the heel, hence the idea of keeping your heels down while riding. Riding closer to the heel means that the weight and balance of the rider are nearly in the same place. By doing this, a rider runs the possibility of locking their foot into blocked position. That is not to say that it is never done. Some riders may use this method of heel lock for a specific purpose. In jumping circles the phrase for placing the boot through the stirrup and putting the weight on the arch is ‘jamming it home.’  However, this style of riding is the exception rather than the rule. A rider needs to know how to dismount quickly and efficiently. Everyone, myself included, who has ever fallen from a horse to the ground with a foot still caught in the stirrup, understands the panic that ensues and the need think clearly to disengage.
Stirrups were designed to stabilize a rider’s foot, but they can also be the bane of a rider. Any rider who uses stirrups spends time learning how to get out of them. As mentioned above, the problem with stirrups is that riders’ feet can get trapped in them. To better understand how stirrups and heels do not always work well together here is an example of heel-stirrup mishap. In this scenario a rider falls or is bucked from a horse. For this example assume that prior to the fall, the rider’s foot slid through the stirrup and jammed at the heel, meanwhile the front of their foot moved upward coming to rest against the arc of the stirrup, which in essence made the stirrup a buckle with the foot acting as the tongue.   Because of this locking as they fell they were still attached to the saddle and thus to the horse. If the rider was lucky, the horse stopped resulting in relatively minor injuries to their ego and body. However, if the horse continued to move then the rider, now an extension of the horse could be bounced and dragged across the ground with far more serious consequences. If the heel was designed primarily to lock a warrior in place, then horsed combatants were, in essence, expendable, expensive but expendable.
Ottoman Mamluk horseman circa 1550

The next installment will examine the spur.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

You are invited to a costume tea and dancing….

I, Sarah Wentworth Macpheadris extend an invitation to you and your friends for a special afternoon at
the MacPheadris-Warner House, Portsmouth, NH.
Saturday 13 June, from 11-3:00.
Period costume encouraged.
In your finest 18th, 19th or early 20th century attire, do come and celebrate my forthcoming wedding with an afternoon of tea and entertainment. My dear Mr. Jaffrey will not be on hand to greet you and sends his regrets. In lieu of his delightful repartee,
from 2 PM to 3 PM, the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society (RSCDS) Boston Chapter, quite well-known in these parts, will demonstrate the latest in fashionable Scottish dance. All will be welcome to join in the gaiety.
If you do not partake in dance, please feel free to join in a spirited croquet match on our lawn.

I live in one of the finest early-Georgian brick houses in New England, c. 1716. I would not be too bold as to add that we are also among the best appointed in these northerly climes - our gardens are delightful, our murals powerful and our smalt chamber the envy of many. Declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960, we are well situated in downtown Portsmouth, near the mighty Piscataqua (and rather close to Maine).

Light refreshments will be served. The party is on our annual free admission day, but donations are always most welcomed. RSVP to Jeffrey Hopper, Warner House Steward at by 10 June. For additional information find us on Facebook or 

Our friends Master and Mistress Spencer have lovely images at

Friday, May 15, 2015

Inspired by Eliza Pinckney's Indigo: Madame Magar’s Studio

I recently had the opportunity to visit Charleston and the Charleston Museum for their launch of the “Pinckney Project.” The “Project” is an initiative dedicated to raising funds to conserve one of Eliza Lucas Pinckney’s surviving dresses. Pinckney (1722-1793) was an 18th century Renaissance mind and citizen of the world, who experimented with sericulture. [1] Her work with indigo in South Carolina generated a potentially lucrative opportunity for Great Britain to expand the indigo market and challenge French production in the world market.

In addition to seeing her elegant pale blue shoes (Read on..) and her salmon-hued silk damask dress (More..), I had the good fortune to meet Leigh Magar, who joined the event featuring “Madame Magar's Makeshift Studio.” So inspired is she by Eliza Pinckney and indigo, that she has planted the crop herself and is experimenting with various natural dyes. 
She uses not only indigo, but also tea and tobacco on her lovely hand sewn textiles and clothing.  I was captivated by Madame Magar’s indigo bodices and summer shifts.

Madame Magar is generously assisting with raising funds in support of the gown and its conservation. For example, a striking quilted indigo piece is underway for a forthcoming auction. 

You can follow her work via Facebook ( You can follow the Charleston Museum and the Pinckney Project via Facebook (, Instagram and Tumblr.

1. There are numerous online and print resources available for the study of Eliza Pinckney.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Cherry Red Silk Pumps, c. 1780s

Who wore these vibrant red pumps in the later years of the 18th century? The shoes are in the collection of the Moffatt-Ladd House, Portsmouth, NH ( Although the original owner of these bright beauties is not currently known, it is likely that they were worn in New Hampshire. They are similar to stylish shoes being produced by the London cordwainers, Chamberlain and Son at roughly the same time. While they may have been made in Great Britain, they certainly could have come from a Boston or Lynn shoemaker as well. They feature a white leather-clad heel of about two inches and are lined in linen. Buckles were needed for fastening the lachets.  

Chamberlain & Sons, silk shoes from the collection of the Portsmouth Historical Society

These shoes are on the large side (about a size 9 US) and wide, indicating perhaps a bespoke (custom) order. The heels exhibit some wear and the shoes have losses to the white trim bindings. The architectonic, balanced color scheme and smooth surface is indicative of the growing Neoclassical influence. Women's shoes moved away from the heavy embroidery and richly decorated silk brocades found earlier in the 18th century, associated with the Rococo style.

The curatorial team at Moffatt-Ladd may well come up with additional information, as these shoes were recently donated (winter 2015). They are currently on view (through June 5, 2015) at “Cosmopolitan Consumption: New England Shoe Stories, 1750-1850” at the Portsmouth Athenaeum.

The author thanks Barbara McLean Ward, Ph.D., Director & Curator and Cheryl Cullimore, of the Moffatt-Ladd House, and Astrida Schaeffer, of SchaefferArts, for their generous assistance.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Join us for a “shoes and shopping” event!

Looking for something fun to do with friends this weekend? Join us for “Shoes & Shopping,” Saturday, May 2nd from 10-4:00, in the lovely New England seacoast city of Portsmouth, NH.

Bring a few friends and tour the exhibition “Cosmopolitan Consumption: New England Shoe Stories, 1750-1850.” The exhibit is free and the curators, Kimberly Alexander and Sandra Rux, will be on site offering tours for those who are interested. The program is one of the series offered by the Portsmouth Athenaeum (Information here: in conjunction with the exhibition.

After your tour, pick up a ‘coupon’ in the gallery to redeem for discounts at participating merchants. (They will let you know the discount amount and the items included. You may also pick up a map in the gallery.)

Come out, shop local and enjoy the Seacoast!  Many thanks to these generous merchants:

City Shoes

Club Boutique


Ireland on the Square

Pickwick’s Mercantile

Puttin' On the Glitz

Twice a Lady