Women's Shoes: What's In a Name?

Women's Shoes: What's In a Name?
Reading time: 6 min

From Cinderella’s glass slippers to Carrie Bradshaw’s Manolo Blahniks, women’s shoes have become as integral in art as they are in everyday life. But each of these now-iconic styles has an origin story, starting with the invention of their names.

From Roman magistrates to comic book characters, we explore the surprising influences behind some of today’s most famous footwear. Whether your interest lies in footwear or language, our round-up ought to fill your boots.


Women’s shoes - Pumps

Pump is a word that’s been used ambiguously over the years to describe a number of styles of casual shoes, but one that officially refers to close-fitting dress shoes, usually with a mid-height heel.

However, the shoe it draws its name from was quite different, because it lacked a heel and because it was primarily worn by men. The name originates from the pump rooms of spa towns such as Bath during the days of the Roman baths. Pump rooms were where society events would be held and where men would wear these easily slipped on shoes.

Today, they’ve developed into a fashion all their own, frequently worn by women in both casual and formal settings. Style icon and Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, is a known fan – having been pictured in multiple styles throughout the years.


Mules are another popular women’s shoe with roots in men’s footwear. The name comes from a Middle French word for slipper, which itself was derived from the Latin “mulleus calceus”. These were a type of shoe worn by the three highest magistrates in Roman society, usually colored in red of purple.

The type of mule we know today appears to have emerged around the mid 16th Century, when the word came to mean a heeled shoe with no quarter or heel strap – leaving the back looking much like a slipper.

It’s a style that has been favored by many premium designers over the years. Manolo Blahnik, a legend in shoemaking, said: “In the eighties I did nothing but mules. His inspiration was drawn from nobility of the past: “Egyptian queens would be walking around in these kind of mules of gold and ivory…And Madame de Pompadour in her mules, walking around Versailles.”

The style appears to have remained popular amongst high society, with the likes of Pauline Ducruet pictured wearing mules on a number of public appearances.


Women’s shoes - Clogs

Clogs are a style similar but distinct from the mule – although the terms are often used interchangeably in the fashion world. While the latter was made popular by French aristocracy, the former was favored by the working class of Scandinavia and the Netherlands, where they provided the necessary support and comfort for a long working day.

The word clog comes from Middle English and literally translates to “a block of wood”, explaining why the shoes are traditionally made of wood. This factor also links them to the alternate meaning of clog, as in: “to clog up”. The expression comes from a medieval punishment whereby a person or animal would have a block of wood fastened to their leg in order to prevent them escaping.

Mary Janes

While Mary Janes has become a common term amongst shoe designers, it was originally a registered trademark and as such a brandnomer – that is, when a product becomes commonly known by a brand name rather than the generic product name – for what should be referred to as “bar shoes”.

The trademarked name came from a character in a Buster Brown comic strip that was known for wearing that particular type of shoe, characterized by the low-cut silhouette with a strap across the instep.

Mary Janes have long been a popular feature in women’s fashion, with the likes of Charlotte Casiraghi, daughter of Caroline, Princess of Hanover, seen sporting them at society events.


Women’s shoes - Stiletto

Stiletto is perhaps the shoe style with the most obvious etymology. The heel derives its name from the Italian word for a small dagger, thanks to its obvious resemblance. The style is credit to French footwear designer Roger Vivier, who is said to have created the first stiletto shoe in 1954.

However, the word “stiletto” has, in the past, carried other meanings. Prior to being associated with women’s shoes, it was used to describe a particular style of pointed beard.

Today, stilettos are commonly reserved for evening wear, with the likes of Princess Charlene of Monaco seen pairing them with elegant dresses for special occasions.

Kitten Heels

The comfortable alternative to towering stilettos is the more comfortable kitten heel. While it is often used to describe any shoe with a noticeably low heel, it should be reserved for heels of under 5cm.

The name was originally borne from the 1950s slang term for an inexperienced girl, because the shoe was widely favored by teenagers. They often served as a so-called practice heel for young women who were not yet used to stilettos, or who were considered too young for more adult styles.

Over the years, they’ve been popularized by a number of celebrities including former First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama. Perhaps the most iconic name associated with kitten heels is Audrey Hepburn, who often wore them during her films to give her a younger, more vulnerable appeal.


Women’s shoes - D'Orsay

D’Orsay shoes are perhaps the most distinct style, with an easy-to-spot side cut that comes close to the sole. Whilst today favored by women and particularly worn at more elegant affairs, they too began as a men’s shoe.

The deep-cut sides allowed greater room for wide feet, making them a comfortable choice for society men. In fact, the name itself derives from one of their earliest fans – Count Alfred d’Orsay, a 19th Century artist and close friend of the legendary Lord Byron.

Today, they continue to be favored by nobility, although generally reserved for the fairer sex. Princess Beatrice was recently seen wearing beautiful Aquazzura d’Orsay pumps at Royal Ascot.

These words might now seem well established, but once upon a time they were as novel as the present day “flatforms”. With languages and fashion both fast evolving, it’s no surprise to see new words entering our vocabulary (and our wardrobes) every day.