Few fashion staples have stood the test of time like Mary Jane shoes. Traditional Mary Janes are characterized by a low heel, a round toe and a single strap over the instep. This style was already popular for both boys and girls at the turn of the century, but it didn’t get the Mary Jane name until early in the 1900s. Until then, it was called a “bar shoe.”
In 1904, the Brown Shoe Company started to use the Buster Brown comic strip characters to advertise their shoes. Both Buster Brown and his beloved Mary Jane sported what would become known as Mary Jane shoes, but only her name endured.
By the 1920s, the girls that had been the target audience of those Brown Shoe Company ads were all grown up, but they still loved their Mary Jane shoes. As the style became increasingly popular among girls and ladies, it became less popular among boys and men. In the 1930s, Shirley Temple tapped her way into America’s hearts and fueled the growing craze for cute Mary Janes.
By the 1940s, Mary Jane shoes were almost entirely feminized (though occasionally still sported by very small boys). Sneakers had been gaining in popularity around the same time, and as a result they became the most popular casual shoe while Mary Janes were considered more formal. Primarily offered in brown, black and black patent leather, Mary Janes became the go-to choice for school uniforms.
As fashion has diversified, so too have Mary Jane shoes. They were sometimes worn ironically during the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and even popped up on the runways on fashion icons like Twiggy. In the 1970s, platform versions of the Mary Jane were on the rise.
In the 1990s, Mary Jane shoes got another makeover via the grunge scene. Often paired with flannels and distressed denim, they were a feminized version of Converses. Before long, major brands were experimenting with the beloved Mary Jane style. Doc Marten has created chunky, militant Mary Jane shoes while high fashion designers like Marc Jacobs and Jimmy Choo have churned out flats, platforms and even stiletto styles.
Supermodel Heidi Klum famously quips, “In fashion, one day you’re in, and the next day you’re out.” This is true of many trends, but it has never been true of Mary Jane shoes which have remained a favorite among fashionable women for over one hundred years.