Bar shoes, more commonly known as Mary Janes, have been around for
centuries as certain Renaissance paintings and Chinese artwork
depicts. Often it is difficult to trace the success or failure of a
particular style of clothing or shoe, the Mary Jane is unique in this
respect. At the turn of the twentieth century the bar shoe was worn by both male
and female children. Comic strip creator Richard Fenton Outcault who
illustrated Buster Brown, and his sister Mary Jane drew the bar shoes
on both of his characters, however the shoe came to be associated with
Mary Jane whose personality Outcault capitalized upon.
Outcault, an Ohio native who had traveled to France is arguably a
pivotal figure in the niche market of comic strips. A review of his work
highlights historical social issues and shows how illustrations can be
used to positively or negatively impact public opinion. An employee of
Joseph Pulitzer who owned The New York World newspaper, Outcault, who
was hired in 1894, brought The Yellow Kid to life by drawing on the
New York City ghetto speech and peculiarities.
Previously yellow as a color was difficult to display in newsprint
due to difficulties with the color drying properly. Modern technology
solved the yellow ink problem, The Yellow Kid was so named due to the
color of his shirt which was chosen as a test for the color. Both the
test and the strip were successful, so successful that eventually a
rival paper, The New York Morning Journal owned by William Randolph
Hearst, wooed Outcault away from his position at The New York World.
When both papers ran The Yellow Kid strip the term and concept, yellow
journalism, was born.
Before Buster Brown appeared The Yellow Kid had made his way into
American lifestyles by appearing on items such as: key chains, fans,
cigarette packaging, buttons, and even billboards. A study of the
political issues addressed by The Yellow Kid strays from the topic,
however it remains a fact that associating a product with a well known
figure, even if that figure is made up, can be used to increase sales of
a particular product. In 1904, Outcault and a sales man named John Bush
took the impish Buster Brown and his coterie to the World's Fair with
the idea of promoting Buster Brown through a direct marketing campaign.
The Brown Shoe Company, established in 1893 as the Bryan, Brown &
Company after the two founders, was one of the companies that purchased
a license to market Buster Brown. While the Brown Shoe Company still
exists only Buster's sister Mary Jane ended up with an eponymous shoe
style. The children's shoes worn by Buster and Mary Jane were low heeled
shoes with a rather wide toe box and a single strap that anchored the
shoe to the wearer's foot. The Mary Jane style was appreciated by the
1920s dance crowd, an article states that bold colors and fabrics were
worn at night while more subdued colors reigned during the day. Actress
Shirley Temple wore a pair of white Mary Jane shoes in: Baby Take a
Bow. School children of both sexes wore the shoes into the 1950s when
black Chuck Taylor footwear and saddle shoes with bobby socks
started outselling Mary Janes.
Today Mary Jane styled shoes are still popular although most of the
shoes manufactured for the adult sized foot have considerably higher
heels and much narrower toe boxes than the ones worn previously. As Mary
Jane shoes suggest innocence some will pair them with a slim fitting
pencil skirt for a sex kitten look. They tend to work well with A-line
dresses, skirts, and narrow pants where the straps remain in view.
Fashion advice suggests that the strap ought to be no more than one
centimeter thick, from a fitter's perspective the strap thickness should
be in proportion to the rest of the shoe and the wearer's foot type
ought to be considered. A narrow strap on a thick foot is going to
emphasize the magnitude of the foot beneath it. Mary Jane as a style can
be tough to pull off for a variety of reasons. A good fit is critical,
please do not make the mistake of pulling the strap excessively tight.
For an introduction to strap tension consider reviewing sandals with
To return to the Mary Jane styled shoe and the beginning of the 20th
century; a theater production featuring a midget as Buster was put together and what is interesting
about the marketing campaign is the that it does not focus on terms such
as quality or craftsmanship relying instead on the strength of the Buster Brown and Mary Jane
characters. By capitalizing on the sister of a roguish ne'er do
well Outcault was able to establish a persona that accompanied the Mary
Jane shoe. Today, a hundred and ten years after 1902, the name Mary Jane
is synonomous with femininity that borders on prissiness. Without Outcault we would not have the name, nor some
fine examples of how to establish and feed a national market through advertising
in an age without television or streaming online media.
Since historical data demonstrating that Brown Shoe Company benefited
from the comic strip characters Buster Brown and Mary Jane is
unobtainable, let us momentarily examine the marketing strategy of
Richard Outcault. First he creates comics, then he creates a market for
his strip by merchandizing, however he refuses to limit his appeal to a
single demographic. While fans were primarly a
woman's purchase, whisky advertisements targeted the urban male. When
the government passed a law outlawing the sale of alcohol,
there was still revenue from other items to inundate the public.
A strength of Outcault's was aggressively seeking out compaies to
support his strip. By branding tchotchke he gave relatively worthless
items such as buttons perceived social value. In the United States
professional sports teams are a good example of this marketing strategy.
Reluctant to let any sale pass them by they have branded items such as:
coolers, pajamas, cellular phones, and floor
mats. They have embroidered pink ribbons on uniforms in the hopes that
an affiliation with companies like Avon, and the recetly flayed Susan
G. Komen Foundation, will sell more tickets and merchandise.
To close with a story: when I worked in a retail store a nineteen
year old girl asked what sort of shoes I would recommend for her
upcoming trip to China. The girl wanted something
that was comfortable, durable, yet dressy enough to wear with a skirt.
By the time her mother appeared the girl had settled on a pair of Mary
Jane styled sandals and I was secretly impressed with the maturity she
displayed as the supportive sandals were
targeted towards middle aged women. Issuing a cry of despair the girl's
mother ran to the front of the store and came back holding a comparably
priced three inch wedge sandal with a cork faced heel. Mother and
daughter argued for as long as I was working, after they left I forgot about the girl until she came back that weekend
with money from her father.
Creating a product with longevity as a feature is key in establishing
something as a style or a classic. Here today, gone tonight items
abound, they should be appraised and discarded as unworthy. Abstain from
following the crowd and make the distinction between style and fashion
as one enhances your image and represents a good use of your money while
the other robs you of money and class. Whether it is comic strips,
writeups, or footwear; there's smart and then there's
- Style suggestions.
- Peter Pan collars and Mary Jane shoes.
- Wikipedia: Suggested for historial data on who wore the shoes when.
- The Yellow Kid mechandise.
tight 20th century timeline.
- $2.5 Billion Brown Shoe Company. Includes a comprehensive list of brands.
- Buster Brown by Jet-Poop is worth a reread for more information about Buster Brown, his dog Tige, and his sister, Mary Jane.