A pair of celluloid heels, part 1.

15 February 2023
We recently acquired this lovely pair of celluloid heels (refer image below).

Image credit: Katherine Pell

They consist of a wooden heel that has been covered by a thin layer of black coloured cellulose nitrate (celluloid), which has then been decorated with paste stones and metal granulation/picotage. The heels are slightly different in height, and both have stones missing but this shows us how they were attached originally, ie. glued into a pre-drilled hole.
Cellulose nitrate had many uses and MoDiP has a great collection of decorative hair combs, billiard balls and table tennis balls (the material is still used today for the latter), smoking accessories, various tokens, ornamental boxes, and lots of other small housewares. British Xylonite Ltd were reportedly manufacturing celluloid covered boot heels in 1896 but surviving examples of the elaborately decorated women’s evening shoe heels seems to originate predominantly in France and the US. The Met Museum reports that ‘plain black celluloid-covered heels appeared in the late 1910s’, with jewelled versions becoming all the rage around 1925.

As hemlines became shorter, attention turned to the feet.

French wooden heel manufacturer Fernand Weil, Emile Petit & Co.was awarded
a gold medal at the International Exhibition of Industrial and Decorative Arts in 1925.
Image credit: https://www.tourismesaintleu.fr/patrimoine-industriel.htm

The advantages of celluloid as a heel covering material were its affordability, consistent quality and availability, water-resistance and non-scuff qualities, as intimated in the advert below. Additionally, it could be produced in a variety of colours and finishes that imitated expensive natural materials such as tortoiseshell, ivory and mother-of-pearl.

Illustration from ‘The Shoe Buyer’s Manual’ 1933.
Image credit: Mustafaev, 2018, p.22.

To make the heels, first the celluloid sheets would be cut to the required size and shape – to demonstrate this, the image below is a 1932 patent for an efficient design to limit waste when covering Louis heels. Next, the individual covers are softened to make the material workable and when ready, a wooden heel blank would be clamped in a jack and the celluloid stretched around it and glued into place. Once cool, the decorative design would be laid out and holes drilled in the appropriate places for the insertion of paste stones etc.

Image credit:

Here are some great contemporary reports, courtesy of Nazim Mustafaev’s 2018 book ‘Celluloid heel’:
“Jewelled heels, which have been a Parisian specialty for some time, will become more and more popular. Nothing can look richer than a black celluloid heel, studded with imitation diamonds. There is infinite scope here for the decorator.” 
(Shoe and Leather Reporter, 1921, cited in Mustafaev, 2018, p.47).

“One great objection there was to the forerunners in celluloid heels; the possibility of them catching fire when the fair wearers happened to be toasting their feet, on a winter evening, before an open grate. This danger did indeed exist in some countries, although not in France, where we use stoves and central heating, nor in any part of the United States. Conservative England was the market where the danger was rife. However, British ladies may now choose celluloid heels without the slightest fear, for the substance is not inflammable, and dress materials will blaze up much more speedily than these new celluloid covered heels from our Parisian manufacturer, who … has his eye on the British and Colonial markets.” 
(Shoe and Leather Reporter, 1921, cited in Mustafaev, 2018, p.49).

“Black celluloid covered heels are also in large demand… They are so hard that a person can strike them with a hammer and they won’t chip or peel. Nor will they burn as will a celluloid collar.” 
(Boot and Shoe Recorder, 1912, cited in Mustafaev, 2018, p.50).

There are some amazing examples of these beautiful heels and we would love to acquire a more colourful pair but, sadly, these are rare to come by and very expensive. For now, we will have to stare longingly at those belonging to other museums and in personal collections.

Image credit: Mustafaev, 2018, p.86.

Image credit: Mustafaev, 2018, p.97.

Katherine Pell
Collections Officer

MoDiP would like to extend our thanks to Nazim Mustafaev for sending us a copy of his book and for allowing us permission to reproduce images in this blog.

Cruse, J. (2007). The comb: its history and development. London: Robert Hale.

Kaufman, M. (1963). The first century of plastics. London: Council of the Plastics Institute.

Mustafaev, N. (2018). Celluloid heel. Moscow: Shoe Icons.