When I was a little girl, I think I was happiest whenever I had a brand new pair of Mary Jane shoes. Back in the ’60s, little girls didn’t yet wear pants to school. We had clothing for different activities: pants (or slacks, as they were called) or overalls were “play clothes;” then we had our “school dresses,” and finally our flouncier, dressier Sunday and party dresses (these were usually interchangeable).
School dresses varied and ranged from dark plaid jumpers over white blouses (or pleated wool skirts with suspenders for the younger girls), to cotton dresses with full gathered skirts in warmer weather. No matter what sort of dress I wore to school, I was always made to wear plain brown Oxfords or loafers with my school dresses, but some of the girls got to wear their dressy Mary Janes every day of the week.
My own pair of black patent leather Mary Janes were strictly reserved for Sunday school, birthday parties, and other special outings. I remember taking them out of their box during the week and just looking at them, turning them over and over in my small hands, admiring their shininess and sniffing their new-leather aroma. One of my happiest memories is from when I was about 5, when my mother took me shopping for a new pair of Mary Janes. The ones I chose were special, because they had square toes and two thin straps across the instep rather than just one. I remember running around the department store stopping in front of strange ladies, proudly pointing to my new shoes and telling them to look at how pretty they were. The ladies always smiled politely and murmured some compliment before going on their way.
I envied the girls at school who got to wear their Mary Janes every day. I was constantly looking at the other girls’ feet, because I found their shoes so fascinating. In the winter, many of the girls (including myself) wore colored tights under their dresses and jumpers, and I liked the contrast of their shiny black Mary Janes with the red, black, white, hunter green or navy blue tights they had on.
Sometimes I’d see other colors or even materials on the shoes. I remember at a birthday party I attended, one of the girls was wearing baby blue patent leather Mary Janes. I couldn’t get over it. One day at Sunday school, another girl was wearing burgundy velvet Mary Janes. I had to go over there and stroke those velvety shoes. She gave me a weird look. I don’t remember the girl’s name or even what she looked like, but I never forgot those shoes.
On my 6th Easter, my mother bought me a pair of white patent leather Mary Janes to wear with my new pink Easter outfit. My dress was a gorgeous pink confection with embroidered roses, a huge white sash, and a layered skirt, and I had a pink matching coat and hat, but all I cared about was the shoes. I couldn’t stop looking at the way they graced my feet. I never got to wear them again though, because they didn’t match anything else I had, and I was always required to be perfectly coordinated for my mother.
As I grew older, I never outgrew my love for Mary Janes. I started attending Catholic school in 5th grade and we had to wear a uniform, but we were allowed to wear shoes of our own choice, as long as they were either black or navy blue and appropriate for school. Many of the girls were beginning to wear heels, so of course I had to have a pair of Mary Janes with heels. I chose a pair of navy blue leather ones with chunky heels that looked very much like these:
Mary Jane shoes have an interesting history. They were named after the comic strip character Buster Brown’s sweetheart Mary Jane, who wore this type of shoe. Later on, the Buster Brown Shoe Company capitalized on the comic strip characters, and their Oxfords became known as Buster Browns and their dressy one-strapped sandals for girls became known as Mary Janes. Prior to World War II, both boys and girls wore Mary Jane shoes (they were usually brown for boys), but after the war, they fell out of favor for boys. There have been a few exceptions, though. John Kennedy Jr. (JFK’s late son) wore them at his father’s funeral, and Princes Harry and William sometimes wore them for special occasions in the 1980s. But in general, the Mary Jane shoe has become associated with femininity and girlhood.
The three sons of Prince Oskar of Prussia (ages 10, 8 and 3) wearing Mary Jane shoes, 1925.
Mary Janes have been intermittently popular with adult women too. A low-heeled type was often worn with flapper dresses by women in the 1920s, and a similar style became popular in the late 1960s which were usually worn with mini-skirts. While they never really fell out of fashion, they enjoyed a huge revival in the 1990s. The “Kinderwhore” look popularized by grunge-rock icons like Courtney Love often paired Mary Janes with baby doll dresses and of course, lots of plaid and flannel.
I remember in New York City in the 1980s, vendors sold Chinese slippers on almost every street corner. Chinese slippers were styled exactly like Mary Janes but were constructed of thin canvas (usually black but came in other colors too) and had very thin flat soles. They cost about $5.00 a pair. I always bought at least two pairs, and as soon as they wore out (which didn’t take long), I’d replace them. They could be worn with everything and were probably the most comfortable shoes I ever owned.
A chunky type of Mary Jane is still popular today; these are casual shoes that can be worn with either jeans or skirts. Some are even styled like sneakers and made of similar materials. Mary Janes for little girls haven’t really changed at all since I was a little girl and remain as popular as ever. I think these shoes have remained popular because they’re youthful, comfortable, versatile, and classic.