Monday, November 29, 2010

The Australian Shoe Industry: Brief History

Up until the end of the 19th century Australian boot makers continued to produce handmade footwear which by comparison to imported boots and shoes was very expensive (i.e. almost double). Australian made working boots would last on average one calendar month whereas the English boots were doomed by two to three weeks. Up until the 1830smost immigrants unable to pay Australian process ordered their footwear requirements for the year ahead from England. Cobbling (shoe mending) became an essential household maintenance in Australian homes. Higher wage claims (wages doubled between 1840 and 1860) saw a marked decline in the footwear industry in New South Wales with many of the work force leaving to join the gold rush. At this time British manufacturers tried to flood the Australian trade market but it was the Americans that prevailed. By 1858 new technologies had been introduced in the States which completely revolutionized the manufacture of mass produced boots and shoes. At first these were poor quality and scarcely lasted more than 12 days but eventually quality improved. American manufacturers over produced for their domestic market and became a major exporter during the late 19th and early 20th century. A spike came with the Gold Rushes (US 1848- 1855; and Aus 1850s -1890s). During this time the population of Australia quadrupled and the Australian market continued to be flooded with cheap US imports. Australian manufacturers found it difficult to compete until tariffs were introduced then they started producing their own footwear. The affect of American styles on colonial woman's fashion was profound and by 1894 the American shoes had replaced British footwear in the Australian Market.


John Lobb trained as a bootmaker in London before moving to Australia to try his luck in the goldfields. Whilst he never found fortune in gold he did strike on the idea of making hollow heeled boots for prospectors to hide their gold. The idea caught on and Lobb set himself up in business in Sydney in 1858. When the Great Exhibition came along in 1862 he sent a pair of his boots along and won a gold medal for their quality. Twelve months later he sent a pair of his riding boots to the Prince of Wales and was awarded a Royal Warrant. He returned to London and established a business " John Lobb, Bootmaker" which continues to trade as the world's most famous bespoke shoemaking establishment.
By 1870 bootmakers in Sydney were producing 15,000 pairs of boots each week. By 1890s the Melbourne manufacturers had converted to a modern system of mechanization and many Australian bootmakers began making children's shoes. (although Clarks of England had been exporting children’s shoes to Australia since 1842). A local concentration on practical footwear meant fashionable imports remained popular with consumers. Home grown fashion industries did try to become established but with little real success.
Making shoes is a complex business involving many subsidiaries and footwear operations sprung up in many metropolitan areas across Australia including: Ballarat, Geelong, Goulburn, Hobart, Perth and Adelaide. By the beginning of the 20th century good quality leather was abundant and many new Australian companies started making quality boots for farmers. The onset of World War, meant Australian boot makers went into war production mode, manufacturing footwear for the Australian military. Many of these companies have survived producing quality footwear for mountaineering and industrial needs. The First World War saw a massive demand for Australian footwear and by the 20s there were large Australian footwear companies with many hundreds of employees. During the Depression these firms went to the wall and in the wake came smaller boutique companies who thrived due to demand of an increasing population and the Second World War. By the 60s the entire Australian economy was expanding, fuelled by large scale immigration and technical and scientific innovation, as well as the increasing availability of raw materials after protracted wartime shortages. As the 80s and 90s approached there was a marked decline in Australian produced footwear and more dependency on imports from Asia. Currently local manufacturers produce about 12% of the footwear purchased in Australia with much of the production now done off shore.

2 comments:

  1. What about slippers or 'thongs'? How did that get introduced to Australia?

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  2. Esraa Try http://foottalk.blogspot.com.au/2012/04/brief-history-of-sandals.html

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