Shoe Glossary: Pumps

All About the Most Enduring Style in Women's Footwear

Woman seated in peep-toed pumps.
Derek E. Rothchild/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Pumps, also known as court shoes, are one of the most popular styles of women's shoes, and they're also one of the most difficult to define. In their most basic form, pumps have closed counters and a cutout top line that exposes the entire top of the foot starting at the toe box. A classic pump has a seamless vamp and is made without laces, buckles, straps or ties.

However, many pumps feature peep toes, as seen in the photo, open toes, pointed toes, rounded toes, ankle straps and other adornments, and they can have heels of varying heights and types, i.e. a stiletto heel, a kitten heel, a stacked heel, or a wedge.

History

Today the term "pump" is used exclusively to describe women's shoes, but men were the original wearers of the style. The so-called "invention" of the pump is widely disputed. Some historians believe the pump evolved from chopines: platform shoes that reached up to more than 20 inches in height that were popular amongst wealthy aristocrats before they became popularly amongst prostitutes. Others say the pump originated in the Near East and was created as male equestrian footwear that better gripped the stirrup, which still evident today in cowboy boots.

Men's and women's shoes were quite similar in style up until the mid-1600s. Then they split: men's shoes leaned toward the practical side, while women's shoes were made out of luxe materials, like silk and velvet, and decorated with embellishments. Pumps aren't practical shoes, but they were even less practical during this time. They were the epitome of a luxury item.

Owning a pair meant that you had the funds to afford such a frivolous indulgence.

The pump virtually disappeared by the beginning of the 1800s. Political revolutions in the United States and Europe rejected the pomp and circumstance of royalty, and that included fashion. The pump was no longer trendy in women's fashion, and ballet slippers were now in style.

The slipper style faded into obscurity during the mid-1800s and the pump was back. Reinforced with brass heels, pumps could be higher than ever before. In Europe, these shoes became known as court shoes. Stateside, they were known as pumps.

Pumps, as we know them today, originated after World War II. Shoe designer Roger Vivier, who worked for Christian Dior, designed the three-inch stiletto heel in 1954. This new style was much more glamorous than the practical court shoes that had reigned supreme over the last century.

Since then the pump has bounced in and out of the fashion spotlight, but it's always been a very enduring style.

Pros and Cons

Pumps add an instant air of glamour to any outfit, whether formal or casual. In addition to making the wearer appear taller, they adjust posture and accentuate the calves, buttocks, and chest. Pumps lengthen the leg and make the arch of the foot more defined.

These shoes work for nearly all occasions, but they aren't the kinds of shoes that are meant to be worn every day. Pumps can cause serious problems, including hypertension, skeletal and muscular issues, pain and swelling, hammer toes, bunions and lower back pain. They're also not the easiest shoes to walk in, which makes the wearer more prone to falls, sprains, and fractures.​​​​​