This is a quick look at pantofles, slippers and mules. The problem with what museums call things in their collection, is that they are often using modern descriptions to categorise. Words change their meaning over time, and leak from one language to another, often taking on differing meanings during the change. The two examples shown here are both described by their museums as toffel (slippers), and the pictures are provided from Wikimedia Commons. The black leather slippers embroidered with gold thread and silk are in Skokloster Castle, and are traditionally associated with Eric XIV of Sweden who died in 1577. The picture of the insole is of a 17th century slipper in the Livrustkammaren, the Swedish Royal Armoury. Below I give links to some 16th and 17th century survivals which may be slippers, or pantofels, or mules, or just shoes depending on who is looking at them. They are for the most part made with fabric uppers and are backless.
The word pantofle in its various forms and spellings appears all over Europe in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The earliest use seems to be in French in 1465 as pantoufle, and the word continues to mean a slipper in modern French. Its first use in English appears to be about 1482, and in Lowland Scots in 1489 as pantonis, but it also appears as pantofla in 1463 in Catalan Spanish, the Dutch and German pantoffel are also late fifteenth century, and the Italian pantofla is in use by 1502 (OED; DSL; Hanham 1961).
So does a pantofle indicate a light indoor shoe in the early modern period? It does seem to mean something different from an ordinary shoe. The Scottish Treasury Accounts in 1489 have “Payt to Ryche cordynar for xxx payre of schone and xxx paire of pantonis” (paid to Riche cordwainer [shoemaker] for 30 pairs of shoes and 30 pairs of pantofles), and again in 1494 “to Home the cordinare, for schone, brodykinnis and pantuiffillis” (to Home the cordwainer for shoes, buskins and pantofles). By 1565 the lexographer Thomas Cooper in his Thesaurus Linguae Romanae et Britannicae gives the Latin word Baxeæ as meaning “..a kynde of slippers, or pantofles,” though a modern Latin dictionary translates it as a sandal (OLD).
By the second half of the sixteenth century however the term in English has moved to be associated with the new fashion, the chopine. Stubbes in his 1585 moan about all fashions says “They have corked shoes, pincnets, and fine pantofles, which bear them up a finger or two inches or more from the ground ... I see not to what good uses serve these pantofles, except it be to wear in a private house, or in a man’s chamber to keep him warm?” George Puttenham in 1589 makes the same association commenting that an actor did “walke vpon those high corked shoes or pantofles, which now they call in Spaine & Italy Shoppini.”
Randle Holme in his 1688 work makes the link between pantofles and slippers, when talking about an orchid, “The Lady Slipper so called from the resemblance the fore-part of the flower hath to a Slipper, or Pantable.” As with pantofle the term slipper arrives in the fifteenth century, appearing more than once in the Paston letters where someone has, “viijd. wyth þe whyche I schuld bye a peyer of slyppers.” Raleigh speaks of “fair lined slippers for the cold”, and William King wrote in his poem The Old Cheese of a wife who, if her husband went out too often would, “give him his slippers and lock up his shoes.” That slippers were made by shoemakers is shown in a comment in a Dekker play, “What a filthy knaue was the shoo-maker, that made my slippers, what a creaking they keepe.” Dr Johnson in his famous dictionary describes slippers as “A shoe without leather behind, into which the foot slips easily.” Here above is a lovely mid 17th century woodcut showing slippers by the bed.
It is difficult to tell when the term mule is associated with a backless shoe. Although the quote from Dr. Johnson shows he considered slippers to be backless, he doesn’t list mule in his dictionary except in the sense of the animal. The word mule was in the fifteenth century applied to sores or chilblains, especially on the heel (OED). Somehow by the sixteenth century the word is applied to a type of footwear, Heywood in 1562 has, “Thou wearst..Moyles of veluet to saue thy shooes of lether.” Higgins 1585 translation of the Nomenclator however seems to associate mules with the high soled chopine. “Mulleus, a shooe with a high sole,..a moyle.”
So on the basis of the above when Queen Elizabeth’s shoe makers list what they have made, they knew what they meant. We can be considerably less certain about what is meant by, “xxiiij paire of velvet shoos, slippers and pantobles stitched with silke lined with satten and in the soles with skarlett two paire of slippers of tufte taffeta lined with velvet, xxiij paire of Spanishe lether shoes and pantobles of sondrie colours and fashions.” (Arnold)
Velvet slippers in the Rijksmuseum dating from c.1550-c.1574
This is a report with a photograph of a 1640s-1660s slipper (mule) found on Canna Island, Scotland
These are the nightcap and slippers of King Christian IV of Denmark (died 1648). They are in the Danish Royal collection. Both are monogrammed with C4, his initial and regnal number.
This is a pair of 1650s-1660s leather soled backless slippers with an originally salmon pink watered silk upper. They are in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and like the Canna slippers they are plain.
This pair are also from the V&A, and are of the same date range, 1650s-1660s. They were probably originally purple velvet, and are embroidered with silver-gilt thread and lined with leather.
Dating from the 1660 or 1670s this pair in the Victoria and Albert Museum are embroidered white silk. They are discussed in detail with photographs and x-rays by Luca Costigliolo in: North, Susan and Jenny Tiramani, eds, Seventeenth-Century Women’s Dress Patterns, vol.2, London: V&A Publishing, 2012, pp.152-155
This pair from the Platt Hall Gallery of English Costume date to around 1665-1675. They are of pale blue silk satin over cream leather, embroidered with metal thread and spangles
Another slightly later (1700-1720) slipper from Platt Hall, is in blue/silver figured silk, over leather with a red heel
Finally from 1710-1720s in the V&A collection is a pair of brocaded silk slippers.
Arnold, Janet 1988 Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd. Leeds: Maney.
Dekker Thomas and Webster, John. 2010 North-ward Hoe: sundry times acted by the children of Paules. 1607. The British Library
DSL: Dictionary of the Scots Language [online]
Hanham, Alison, 1961. The Cely Papers and the Oxford English Dictionary, English Studies, vol. 42, pages 129-152
Heywood, John 1562 The Proverbs, Epigrams, And Miscellanies Of John Heywood.
Higgins, John. 1585. The Nomenclator Or Remembrancer ... Conteining Proper Names and Apt Terms for All Things Under Their Convenient Titles... Written in Latine, Greeke, French and Other Forrein Tongues: and Now in English
Holme, Randle, 1688. Academie of Armory.
OED: Oxford English Dictionary [online]
OLD: Oxford Latin Dictionary [online]
Paston Letters and Papers of the Fifteenth Century Part I. 2004. Edited by Norman Davis. Early English Text Society.
Puttenham, George 1589. The Arte of English Poesie.
Stubbes, Philip, 1585. The Anatomy of Abuses.