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Pair of Foot-binding Shoes

Foot-binding Shoes, c.19th century, Chinese, linen, silk, Gift of Mrs. Gertrude Dempster, 1979.4.2.

The ancient practice of foot-binding in some Chinese cultures stirred great controversy until its official abolishment in 1911. Young girls, some as young as three years old, would have their feet bound by either their mother or their grandmother to maintain their miniature quality. In this practice, the small toes are bent under the foot and toward the heel, forcing the arch of the foot upwards. Even though this was a painful process, often the potential of the young girl to marry depended on it. Also referred to as “lotus feet,” feet were shrunk to only three or four inches before the process was considered complete. In one account, a young girl writes that it took her two years to achieve the desired, and at the time, fashionable look. After the initial months, shoes would be switched out every two weeks, getting one- to two-tenths of an inch smaller each time.

By the turn of the 20th century, new ideas were circulating and many ancient traditions were beginning to be phased out. Many mothers began to leave their daughters feet unbound, despite the difficulties the young women may face when finding a husband.

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