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Mules {Then and Now}

Mules Then and Now ModernRetroWomancom

The Mister calls them “toy shoes” because they look like something a Barbie Doll would wear but I am mad about mules.  As soon as the weather turns warm, my pumps are replaced by mules.  To me, mules are just as iconic for 1950s footwear as saddle shoes and stilettos. I’m pretty sure I let out a fangirl squeal when I realized that Della Street frequently wore them on Perry Mason.

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According to Micheline on Pinup Girl Style,

 Mule, a French word meaning slipper, is a style of shoe that is backless and [in an earlier time] closed toe. The word Mule was possibly derived from the Dutch word Muli, ultimately from Latin Mulleus (calceus), a reddish-purple ceremonial shoe worn by three highest magistrates in Ancient Rome.

High heeled mules date back to the 16th century, though they became even more popular in the 18th century as an indoor shoe style worn more exclusively by women. Mules were always meant for the higher echelon of society, as a normal laborer would have no use for a shoe that could be easily slipped on and off. Mules were a sign of status and gave the indication to others that you lived a life of luxury. This association with luxury and high society is what kept the Mule alive for the modern woman and even more so in the twentieth century when they became the common shoe choice for concubines, ladies of the night or in more layman’s terms, prostitutes.

That all changed when Hollywood embraced the mule.  Although often associated with sex kittens like Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, mules were mainstream and women were even seen wearing them in the suburbs while lounging on their patios in their toreador pants and caftans.

Debbie Sessions, on her Vintage Dancer blog reminds us that in the 1950s

Only in extreme summer heat did women go without stockings. Wearing stockings with sandals was a must. Wearing them with strapless mules made for a rather slippery experience. In 1954 a solution called “Spring-O-Lators,” featured a leather and elastic band down the inside of the mule to push the foot forward and keep the shoe on.  Finally women could wear sexy mules for evening wear or at home as dainty bedroom slippers (not practical enough for house slippers, bedroom slippers were only worn with sexy lingerie as an enticement for husbands.)

For summer wear, thin heeled mule shoes and slingback sandals were in vogue. If they featured any extra adornment it came in the form of a thin, flat bow across the toe. Straps were wide and heels either very thin or more commonly thick and rounded.

For women who preferred a more bombshell look, Polly of California introduced the Genie or Glamour Clog in the early 1960s.  These mules are instantly recognizable for their half metal/half wood heels. 

In an era of shoes that make women’s feet look like hooves, it can be an adventure finding well made mules that won’t break the budget.  I buy most of my shoes from Zappos.com but if you type “mule” into the search box, you’ll get pages of clogs and crocs instead of the dainty shoes I love so much.  But, finally, finally, I was able to find one pair and then Zappos’ suggestions for other shoes led me into a treasure trove of mules at all sorts of price points.  And the beauty of Zappos is that you get free shipping both ways so I could try on shoes until I found the ones I wanted.

And found them I did.  I am wearing a pair of Onyx mules in the Modest style in the collage above (Numbers 3 and 6, with my self-care pedicure).  They are much, much more than I have paid for mules in the past but they are amazingly comfortable because of the cushioned suede lining and the leather straps that are as soft as butter.  I have worn them while teaching all-day workshops and my feet don’t begin to beg me to get off of them until I am getting to the end of the day. Since they are a timeless style, I believe I will be wearing them for years to come.

How about you?  Are you a mule fan?


(Sources for images : Number 1, Number 2, Number 4 and Number 5)


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  1. This was a great post, sorry I’m a little late with a comment. I just watched that Perry Mason episode and I totally missed Della’s shoes. I must go back and check it out. I love Della.
    I must say that I’ve never worn Mules before. I always thought of them as boudoir attire. Yours look nice. I wear open backed sandals, so why not a little heel. nice idea.

    1. I love them (as you know). I’m thinking that I’m going to start wearing slingback pumps during transitional seasons–kind of the best of both worlds.

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