The History of the Belgian Slipper

Custom Made Men's Belgian Slipper in Black Genuine Python with Black Suede
Python and Suede Belgian Slipper from Robert August

            Over the past few years, we have seen a huge rise again in popularity of the iconic Belgian Slipper. The amazingly comfortable and stylish shoe came from the brilliant mind of Henri Bendel who established his first store in 1895. Known for selling women’s accessories it was the first store to have its own fragrance and also offer “in-store makeovers,” which is a concept department stores still use today.

Henri Bendel

            Born in Louisiana, Bendel moved to New York and worked as a milliner. His first shop was located in Greenwich Village, and he was the first retailer ever to sell Coco Chanel designs in the U.S. When Bendel designed his elegant loafer with a small bow in the front he knew he wanted unmistakable quality and went directly to a 300-year-old Belgian cobbler company that produced their shoes using the “turn” method. The “turn” method is when a shoe is sewn inside out, and then upon completion is flipped. This ensures that each and every stitch is completely flawless, and the results are legendary.

Custom Made Men's Belgian Slipper in Dark Brown Genuine Alligator
Alligator Belgian Slippers with the iconic bow, from Robert August

            The shoe design quickly became a favorite and a symbol of comfort and class. They are extremely comfortable and can add a touch of elegance to your daily grind.

            Henri Bendel worked closely with several Belgian shoe-making families during the 19 years he served as president of his company. In 1956 he purchased two 300-year-old Belgian shoe manufacturing companies. The Belgian government recognized Bendel for his rescue and expansion of the country’s three-century-old shoe industry and even knighted him twice. The first time in 1964 and the second time in 1970.

            The hand-tailored Belgian Slippers were originally made for both men and women and came in a variety of colors and materials. Many of Bendel’s shoes are regarded today as collectibles and the style is widely used by many famous designers today.

            The Henri Bendel store, originally located in Manhattan, was a prestigious destination for the wealthy for years. They were known to sell haute couture from fashion houses like Chanel, Dior, and Balenciaga. In 1954 the Bendel family sold the company to a group of investors, and it has changed hands many times since.

            When it comes to producing what is called turn shoes, this is something that has been around since the Middle Ages. The reason it is called this is that the shoes are assembled inside out, and then turned right side out when complete. This hides the main seem between the sole and the vamp, which prolongs the life of the shoe itself because moisture cannot leak through the seams.

            In the very beginning, turn shoes were only made with one piece of leather, but over time it added elements like double soles. When it comes to turn shoes there are a few different styles like the low slipper, high slipper, and the single toggle. Each of these shoes has the same sole. When making the shoes the cobblers have to be familiar with the parts of the shoe. For instance:

  • Upper is the sides that covers the tops of your feet.
  • The sole is what you walk on.
  • The side seem is where the two ends of the upper join and will be located on the inside of your foot. So if the shoes are side by side, the inside seems are facing each other.

When being produced in the Middle Ages vegetable tanned leather was the most available. The sole is often produced at a different thickness, and cow leather is mostly used for that. The upper part of the shoe can use a variety of leather from multiple animals and reptiles. When starting out, most people use cowhide as it is the easiest to work with, but more experienced shoemakers will even use alligator.

When it comes to hand sewing the actual shoe there is a certain way to do it. Leather is tough and you can’t just run a needle through it. You must punch a hole first, and you do this with a tool called an awl that has a very sharp spike on the handle. You have to be very careful when using this because it is pretty easy to slip and stab yourself.

      Another tool that makes sewing these shoes by hand a lot easier is a stitch-prickler. It is basically a wheel of spikes that you run along your leather where you will be stitching so that you can visibly see where you want to poke your holes. This will allow you to have an even stitch.

The needles that are used are usually of a thicker variety and have a large eye because the thread is a little thicker than regular sewing thread. When it comes to thread, a worker’s linen thread is usually used, and it is best to use a waxed version. This strengthens and prevents the thread from any damage while sewing. It also makes the thread waterproof prolonging its usage.

When it comes to caring for your amazing Belgian Slippers there are a few things that you will want to do:

  • Depending on the type of leather, you are going to want to polish them from time to time. This is especially true if you wear the shoes often. It will keep the leather supple and moisturized, which allows them to last a great deal longer.
  • If they ever get wet do not put heat on them to dry them. If you dry leather too fast it will cause it to crack. Just place them in a room temperature room with some newspaper in them and when you wake in the morning, they will be good as new.

The Belgian Slipper is iconic and will probably be the most comfortable pair of shoes you will ever own.

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