Mary Janes Were Originally Worn by Little Boys

A history of a shoe that has transcended 1930s boyhood, punk and goth scenes, and Sex and the City fashion.

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Dec 3 2015, 8:09pm

Screenshot via Youtube (Clueless)

For women all over the world, Mary Janes are often the first shoes we ever wear; their easy slip-on silhouette makes them a go-to choice for many parents, and the buckle makes them difficult for tiny hands to pull off in a first act of rebellion. On the other hand (or foot), some of us were introduced to the shoe by Courtney Love, Alice in Wonderland, or Alexa Chung, depending on our age. However we came to meet the Mary Jane, most of us grow to love the shoe's rounded toe and buckle, and our collections grow as we do.

The Mary Jane is a timeless shoe with about a million iterations. They can be heeled, platformed, or flat. They can be leather, cotton, or patent. They can be floral, color-blocked, or striped. The list goes on. But what makes a Mary Jane a Mary Jane? And where did the design come from?

What is a Mary Jane, anyway?

Mary Janes can differ wildly in height, color, texture, etc., but for those in the know, we usually know a good pair when we see one. It's generally agreed upon that they have at least one strap across the top of the foot, and they're also outfitted with a closed and usually rounded toe, a buckle at the ankle, and a closed back. More often than not, they're flat, but they can also have a heel or a platform — and they're always cute as fuck.

The Origin of the Name

Though versions of this particular footwear style had been around for some time, this particular etymology came about in the early 1900's with the popularity of Richard Outcault's comic strip Buster Brown. One of his characters was named Mary Jane; though Mary Jane and Buster Brown both wore the shoe, the style came to bear her name in popular culture.

Buster Brown and Mary Jane were pranksters and each other's sweethearts, and the comic strip was a huge success. It ran in the New York Herald from 1902 until 1906, when Outcault left the Herald and took the comic with him to run in Hearst Papers under a different name, as he'd forfeited the rights to the Buster Brown name when he'd left.

In 1904, Outcault attended the St. Louis World's Fair and sold the rights of the Buster Brown character to the Brown Shoe Company for use in advertising their products, but it seems they've distanced themselves from the name (they changed their name to Caleres) and haven't capitalized on the success of the Mary Jane design—which seems a strange decision, given that they are a shoe company.

A Buster Brown comic from 1903. Image via Wikipedia.

Men and the Mary Jane

Mary Janes are mostly considered a women's shoe today, but you may be surprised to learn that Buster Brown wasn't the only man in history to have worn the shoe. Many English kings chose to wear the silhouette in their head-to-toe portraits, and young boys used to wear Mary Janes as part of their school uniforms or church attire. Most notably, perhaps, John F. Kennedy, Jr. famously wore them at his father's funeral.

It actually wasn't until the 1930s that the Mary Jane began to be perceived as shoe for girls. Because it was initially men who wore the shoe — prominent male figures, at that — it's actually fairly subversive that women primarily wear the shoe today. It's akin to how, at one point in time, pink was considered a color for boys and blue was a color for girls.

A pop culture tour of Mary Janes

Likely the earliest pop culture appearance of the Mary Jane, and perhaps the appearance that set in motion the perception that Mary Janes were for girls, Shirley Temple wore a white version in the 1934 film 'Baby Take a Bow,' when she tapped around on stage singing, "Never liked a copy-cat." Perhaps this was a warning to all of us who followed her sartorial lead but, honestly, I couldn't care less — these things are comfortable, and my black patent pair goes with everything.

Mary Janes were favored all throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and we saw major fashion players (Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton, and Dusty Springfield, anyone?) put their own twist on the shoe. The shoe then got a resurgence of popularity in the 90s, as multiple subcultures adopted the shoe and made it their own. Mary Janes have shown up everywhere from the punk scene, to the goth scene, to your mom's closet.

In the decades that followed, Mary Janes received fairly consistent pop culture shout-outs—from that scene in Sex and the City when Carrie Bradshaw lost her shit over a pair of Manolo Blahnik Mary Janes in a fashion closet ("I thought these were an urban shoe myth!") to that moment in Clueless when Cher walks around in a pair of chunky t-strap MJ's, looking like she know exactly what she's doing. Courtney Love is still frequently spotted wearing a pair, and Alice in Wonderland wouldn't look like herself without that quintessential flat black pair over her knee-highs.

Over the past 30 years, we've seen Mary Janes experience a complete revival from the shoes those English kings used to wear in their stuffy portraits. They've been dressed up and grunged down, they've been elevated and simplified, and they've been refreshed and revamped. Though the name will always remain the same, the shoe itself is a bit of a shapeshifter; a flexible staple for those of us who want to be versatile, but still remember who we are. I, for one, will be making some room in my closet for whatever comes next.