This is certainly a complicated topic. Few things in the shoe world are as confused as how the waist and its edges are to be addressed correctly, where what once were one thing have transformed into something else and switched meaning with something third, and so on. Here I try to clarify it all.
In the dress shoe world, the fascination of soles in general, and waists in particular, is huge. This goes basically from entry level Goodyear welted shoes up to fully handmade bespoke shoes. Although it can seem like a weird thing for “outsiders”, it’s not that crazy really. Waists can be beautiful, it’s one of the areas where the level of craftsmanship really can shine, and it also highly affects the appearance of the shoe, much more than what those “outsiders” usually think.
When it comes to waists, there are some terms that are often used, terms that many think they know what they mean, yet they are in fact often mixed up and used in different ways. The reasons for all the confusions is that what some words ones meant has transformed into meaning something else, at least for some parts of this industry, while the original meanings are still around to various degrees. The terms I will try to pan out and make things clear on are square waist, bevelled waist and fiddle back waist. Let’s go.
A square waist is the least messed-up terms of the ones we’re about to cover here, but some confusion are around. What one need to know is that all these terms – square, bevelled and fiddle back waists – all originally only referred to the edge of the waist (worth noting though, I will base most of the historic referrals on British historic shoemaking terminology in general, and the descriptions that the most acclaimed shoe historian June Swann uses in particular, but I believe it can vary on how things have been translated and used in other areas of the world, at least in cases). Hence, a square waist is when the edge at the waist has a sharp, square shape.
When doing a square waist, many steps are prepping for this shape. The welt keeps its thickness all the way and after stitching you make sure it protrudes from the upper also in the waist area being horisontal to the ground. For the sole, one keep the full substance of it from when stamped or cut out from the hide to keep a relatively flat surface, again rather horisontal to the ground (though one often round the area under the ball of the foot, where the shoe is the widest and bends when walking, to an ever so slight convex shape since the shoe will flatten here when used). The sole stitch and welt finishing continues in the same way all the way back the heel or if a 360° welt also around this. With tools and / or machines one then make sure to make the edges are kept sharp and square shaped. If you look at a well-made square waist, it should then have two 90° angled edges with rather sharp, marked edges.
Following this, the natural bottom of a square waist with all these angular shapes and straight lines, is flat, going horisontal with the ground. One can do a waist that would, traditionally, be described as square yet with the bottom of the waist, the sole area so to speak being slightly rounded with a slight convex shape.
A term that in many regards has a different meaning today than what it had, say, 100-150 years ago. If one follow the development of shoemaking and how it has been industrialised, one can understand also how language have transformed in some regards. What we do see though is a clash between traditional terminology and those who still use this, and the area that has developed the terminology to mean something different and where often other terms have taken over those original meanings. All a solid base for confusion.
In the early 1900’s and before that, when one talked about a bevelled waist, again, one referred to the edge at the waist, and one could have a bevelled inside and square outside, for example. It’s also logic if you look at the original meaning of the word “bevel”, which essentially refers to “an edge of a structure that is not perpendicular to the faces of the piece”. When making a bevelled waist, according to the “original” meaning, even more preparations are needed than for a square waist, and unlike a square waist it can’t be done with machines, it has to be handmade.
To summarise, one first need to shape the insole differently and make the holdfast, the lip of the insole that one stitch the welt seam onto, more narrow at the waist. Then you welt the shoes in a similar way as for a square waist, but here you keep the welt up close tight against the upper in the waist area, and after stitching one cut away a part of the welt edge leaving just enough space for the sole stitch later on. The outsole is then skived thinner towards the outside of the waist sides, so that the bottom will have a rounded bottom shape given the slanting towards the edges, and when you attach the outsole you have it cover the welt in the waist, doing what we today call a blind welt. When one stitch the sole stitch at the waist, one do it more sparse and afterwards the welt and the upper part of the sole seam will be completely covered by the sole. On the bottom, one always have a closed channel, hiding the sole stitch also from below. This leaves a beautifully rounded shaped waist which is narrow and sleek both seen from the bottom and from the sides. If one want a more extreme bevelled waist with higher centre and more slanted sides, one can build-up the waist are between the shank and the outsole, normally with strips of leather, which also can enhance stability if the waist are narrow, and the bottom centre could be shaped like a ridge (what we call fiddle back waist today), etc.
One can see looking at old literature from early 1900’s (there’s not much around from before that, unfortunately), for example in Golding’s legendary eight volumes on boots and shoemaking, that one mainly only talked about bevelled waist, the fact that it was blind welted and that was part of the package. In the middle of the previous century the term blind welt when it comes to this type of waists had appeared and was used to enhance the description. From there on, things changed even further.
A big reason likely, is that when one do factory made shoes where the sole stitch is done with machine, and you want to make things more efficient and essentially cheaper, one couldn’t do the waists the way described above. But one wanted a similar look. This is achieved in various ways, one easy thing is obviously to just round off the edges, one can trim the outsole thinner towards the edges, one can add build-ups over the shank to make the bottom round shaped, and so on. As I mentioned above, one can’t really do the blind welt-edges, so they would not be fully similar to what was originally called a bevelled waist.
But as time gone by, the meaning of bevelled waist, especially in some areas of the classic shoe world and some countries, has changed. Today, one often refers to waists that has a rounded bottom of the waist as bevelled, usually in conjunction with rounded edges, or only having a rounded edge of the waist can be also be called a bevelled waist. The “original” bevelled waist is still done today by most bespoke shoemakers and some RTW / MTO brands who do the waists by hand, and there it’s often still called just that, a bevelled waist, sometimes “with blind welt” added, or similar. Thing is that one can also see “proper” bevelled waists with blind welt, but with relatively straight sides so to speak, which in a way would go against the original meaning even if it’s technically made the same way. So confusion much lays in the fact that the term is now used for various things, and added terms have added to the confusion, so to speak.
Fiddle back waist
This term is actually the one that has gone furthest from the original meaning, which is interesting. It’s likely since the look of the original one doesn’t really suit todays day and age, that it has totally been left to history. Because the characteristic ridge on the middle of the bottom of the waist, which I believe most today would think of when one hear fiddle waist or fiddle back waist, it’s not what one referred to historically when one used this term.
The “original” fiddle waist, it was also concerning only the edges, but a description for bevelled waists (according to the historic meaning) where one had continued the paint from the edges further in on the sides. This to enhance the look of a very narrow waist (since basically all fancy shoes where one did this were black, it would likely be rather effective), seen from below it would look like the center of an hour glass, usually along with rather extremely slanted edges. The bottom could be rounded, or have the ridge, but the ridge was not essential for it to be a fiddle back waist. It’s also rather logic if one think about it, because if you actually look at the back of violins, they normally have a rounded back, even if ridges or something looking like ridges exist, but what they all have is the very pronounced, inwards curved, marked waists. This is likely why the term fiddle waist was coined for this type of waists.
As I mentioned briefly, when one did these very narrow looking fiddle back waists, the shoes looked very elegant and neat, what some would refer to as “feminine”. This look didn’t really survive into the middle of the previous century and further on, but the waists with a marked ridge would. This is what eventually would be commonly called a fiddle back waist instead, and what is basically used by everyone today. Originally though, a fiddle back waist would be a bevelled waist with edge painted coming in long on the sides, usually along with more slanted edges, always with blind welt and round bottom, and with or without a marked ridge.
Rather messy, as you can see. However, in my mind, it’s not as problematic as some other discussed terms, like “handmade” or “handcrafted”, since the latter are filled with much more value, and many use them despite knowing that it’s a real stretch to do so. With the definitions of waists, it’s much more about descriptive terms, and although it of course is easier when one understands exactly what another person means in all cases, the way these words have changed meaning over time, especially in some areas of the industry / world, means that today they are more descriptive of aesthetics than anything else.
So to summarise, as brief and pedagogic as I can:
Historically it meant: Waist with sole edges that are square, with two 90° edges and fully visible sole stitch etc on top of welt, no matter the shape of the bottom of the waist.
Today it means: Waist with sole edges that are square, with two 90° edges and fully visible sole stitch etc on top of welt, no matter the shape of the bottom of the waist. Sometimes a flat bottom of the waist is called a square waist, even if the edges are a bit rounded.
Historically it meant: A relatively narrow or very narrow waist where the outsole is thinned out on the flesh side towards the edges and shaped with slanted edges covering the welt and upper part of the sole stitch. The shape of the bottom of the waist could be round, have a ridge etc.
Today it means: Sometimes the same as above. Sometimes it refers to if the bottom of the waist is rounded with rounded waist edges, sometimes it only refers to if the waist edges are rounded.
Fiddle back waist
Historically it mean: A narrow waist with painted sides creating the look of a very narrow waist with a pronounced hour glass shape. Normally only done on the same type of waists as one historically described as bevelled waists, often ones with very slanted edges, but the term originally concerned only the paint. The shape of the bottom of the waist could be round, have a ridge etc.
Today it means: Basically only refers to waists with a marked ridge in the center, no matter what type of edges have been done.