While you can find unworn vintage shoes (typically sold as “New Old Stock” or NOS, as opposed to “New With Tags” or NWT for clothing), most often you’ll find vintage shoes that have been previously worn. But, like most vintage fashions, “worn” doesn’t mean “worn out”. And even vintage shoes which have never been warn should be checked for problems with the aging rubber, glue & leather. Here’s a guide what to look for when shopping for vintage shoes.
As a general rule, the following are signs of quality shoes and are to be looked for:
Shoes made of (marked as) genuine patent leather, full-grain leather, genuine alligator, reptile or other exotic leathers.
Heels made of real wood, leather stacked heels (not plastic moulded to look stacked); cork & thick plastic are also good bets.
Shoes with extensive sizing information indicate custom and/or expensively made shoes.
Shoes made in Italy or Spain.
Shoes with a maker stamped in one insole and the shop that carried the shoe in the other insole indicates exclusivity & therefore quality.
How To Evaluate The Quality Of Vintage Shoes:
Vinyl and patent leather are always repaired with less certainty; so, a few scuffs aside, if it’s not perfect I leave my wallet shut.
Fabric shoes generally are at risk for more wear — and the older the shoe, the more likely there are to either be damages or fragile fabric ready to split & tear. Inspect both shoes carefully; I use my fingers as well as my eyes so that I can feel any weaknesses. Bending the shoe may also expose stress points on the vamp. Often there is fraying along the bottom edge of the upper on vintage fabric shoes. This can be halted with Fray-Check, but as this can also discolor vintage fabrics test it first. And you’ll need to be more gentle with these shoes; they are not for everyday & lots of outside wear.
Vintage shoes, like any cloth shoes today, can be dyed. Prices for dying starts at around $50 for vintage shoes, but is certainly worth it if a new coat of color hides spots and stains and makes the vintage shoes wearable once again.
Leather shoes with scratches or stains can also be fixed; before doing this as you would your modern leather shoes, test on a small inconspicuous area first. Leather can also be dyed, starting at $30.
As leather, suede and exotics like alligator snake skin age, they become dry & brittle — and more likely to tear. To test for this, gently but firmly bend the upper and listen for cracking — and look for the visual signs of cracks too. Bend the upper in several places to be sure it is supple. Leather can be revived with a Lanolin dip, but I’ve never taken that risk; if the leather seems too weak, I pass.
Be wary of suede which ‘dusts’. This is called crocking suede and generally indicates poor quality — although any suede shoes made prior to the late 40’s or early 50’s crocked due to the sueding process. If you love them, can live with the crocking, and accept that these shoes must be pampered during what remains of their shorter lifespan, then go for it.
Closely inspect the seams on the shoes. Fabric and leather shoes with fraying or tears at or along the seam can often be repaired (starting at around $25), but a tear off the seam is more problematic. In leathers, it may be a sign of brittle &/or weak leather. (Some say they’ve had patches performed, but again, I’ve just walked away from shoes which are that much work.)
Buckles, eyelets, beading and other embellishments on vintage shoes can usually be repaired — but they often mean repairing both shoes to have them match and I’ve never accepted that fiscal responsibility.
Shoe laces & buttons, however, are worth the time & the dime to replace.
Leather boots can have the zipper replaced; fees starting at around $36. And boots which are too-tight on the calves can have elastic gussets, stretch fabric or matching leather insets inserted to literally give you a little more leg room.
Shoes with uppers which feel sticky or tacky are bad news. The finish is ruined which means you’ll need to cover them up with new fabric. If you’re creative and skilled, fine; if not, don’t bother.
Many vintage shoes have heels that are covered in the same material as the upper, and it’s important to inspect to see that this material is intact and not fraying. If there are problems at the bottom of the heel (where it meets the heel tap) or at seams, these things can be repaired; but if it’s a problem with the general heel area, then it may be a darn shame, but you may have to walk away without them.
Missing or damaged heel taps are easily & inexpensively repaired &/or replaced by a shoe cobbler (not with those cheezy heel tap covers). It costs about $4 or $5 per shoe for this service, but it’s well worth it when you consider that any further wear can result in damage which will require a cobbler to build up the heel to make it level, costing $20 or more (and may require that both heels are done to make sure they match).
Heels that are worn unevenly, rounded or otherwise appearing damaged may be rebuilt, as mentioned above. But damaged Lucite or other fancy glamorous heels may need to be be completely re-heeled; ask yourself if the rest of the shoe is worth it. (In the case of these fantastic 1950s Lucite heels with roses inside, I’d just cry over the heel damage and delicately dab at my eyes with a hankie as I pass them by; those heels are the shoes.)
A sole pulled away from the shoe can be repaired for between $20 and $50.
Worn or cracked soles can be repaired with a partial or half sole replacement (sometimes called “fill-ins”) for as little as $25. You can also have the entire shoe resoled. That ranges in price from $35 to $80 — which may sound expensive, but having that done gives vintage shoes decades worth of new wear.
However, if the welt (the piece between the upper shoe and the sole) is worn, it’s not worth the investment.
Even if the soles seem fine, like on these vintage pumps with leopard print accents, bend the sole and listen for cracking. Cracking indicates that the rubber &/or glue is aged and ready to part (either the sole from the shoe, or the sole crack).
Vintage shoes can also be ‘updated’ with rubber treads to prevent slipping for around $20; highly recommended.
Insoles & Linings:
A deteriorating lining — the cloth sewn into the shoe — is technically repairable, but unless we’re talking museum quality shoes (and then you aren’t going to wear them, are you?) they are not worth the investment.
Some just cut the lining out as best as possible, but I find that simply unacceptable. Not only do you often find a unsatisfactory powdery substance sticking to your feet, but without a lining your sweat will soil and deteriorate the uppers; so what’s the point?
If the lining is tacky or sticky, run away! You can disinfect shoes, but you’ll never remove the ‘ick’.
(Regarding disinfecting shoes, even if you are only intending to spray the inside of the shoes, the spray will, well, spray. So I cover the shoes with plastic saran wrap just to be sure no discoloration occurs; and spray evenly, but lightly so as not to make the shoes wet.)
The leather or leatherette inserts may be curled, damaged or missing entirely; as long as the lining is fine. These insole inserts can be replaced or merely have new leather or other inserts placed over them. (And you may wish to use arch supports etc. anyway.)
A Few Final Words:
While shopping at vintage stores and thrift shoppes means you can readily test for conditions, don’t let this prevent you from shopping for great vintage shoe deals online. (Otherwise, you might miss gems like these floating heel wedges!)
Dealers and sellers who specialize in vintage fashions & shoes know that conditions are important and will answer your questions; those who are unwilling are best to be avoided. If leery, ask the seller to put it in writing (in the email or seller notes at the auction site etc.) that if you find the shoes in conditions not as stated that you may return them.
And don’t forget to see my tips on buying vintage shoes in the proper size.
Note: It is important for any shoe repairs that you must establish that the person doing any repairs on your vintage shoes is indeed familiar with vintage shoes. New glues, dyes etc. may react with the vintage materials, creating new problems. That not only means more money for more repairs, but in fact may ruin or ‘total’ the shoes.
Now, go put your best foot forward and safely buy vintage shoes!