Mary Jane: from comics to catwalks

Fashion and art have blurred boundaries but their best narratives came out from real lucky stories. Here is one. Before becoming the mythic shoes, “Mary Jane” was the name of the girlfriend of little “Buster Brown”, the fictional character of a famous American graphic novel by Richard Felton Outcault. The illustrator developed his creative idea from the observation of a curious and funny boy who lived in his neighbourhood in New York City, while Mary Jane is said to represent his own daughter (who had the same name).

The Buster Brown’s comic strip has started to circulate among newspapers since 1902 and became very popular in terms of style, childish games and satirical sentences about the American middle-class. The couple was naughty and cheeky. In their crazy adventures the kids also had an American Bulldog Terrier named Tige.
John Bush, employee in one of the biggest shoe companies in North America, decided to buy the rights to use the names and images of the trio to promote a fashion line of children’s shoes based on the ones worn by them. A marketing move consecrated their fate. Suddenly the image of Mary Jane, little Brown and his dog appeared inside each pair of shoes designed to indicate above-average good kids with no sex distinction who wanted just to have fun and sometimes misbehave. Essential features of “Mary Jane” shoes are:

  • Black colour
  • Round toe (as the ones owned by ballet dancers)
  • Varnish or leather material
  • Thick heel
  • Ankle strap: one or more

Obviously, the model changed through the years, influenced by trends or people who decided to wear them. For example, in the 60s there was Twiggy, who made them still more fashionable paired with long coloured socks, and in the 70s Jane Birkin.
But the big revival was in the 90s, when the Mary Janes were adopted by particular grunge female figures, such as Kat Bjelland or Courtney Love, who wanted to express their rebellious attitude against the norm and raise their voice on women’s rights. Today, different fashion houses have internalized this ideal: Prada in terms of women empowerment and Gucci in terms of no gender clothing. Actually, Alessandro Michele was more inspired by the “shoes with cat eyes” for kids, so called in Italy, because they presented little holes on the toe. But that is another mysterious story.

By Alessandra Busacca