Classic Mary Janes for children are typically made of black leather or patent leather, have one thin strap fastened with a buckle or button, a broad and rounded toebox, low heels, and thin outsoles. Among girls, Mary Janes are traditionally worn with pantyhose or socks, and a dress or a skirt and blouse. Among boys (less common), Mary Janes are traditionally worn with socks, short trousers, and a shirt.
Although generally associated with young girls nowadays, and to a lesser extent teenage girls and women, Mary Janes have also been worn by males throughout history. To cite a few examples:
- Some men during the Renaissance, including kings Henry VIII of England, Francis I of France and Charles IX of France, et al.
- Some men and boys in Imperial China
- Some boys since the 19th century, particularly in the first half of the 20th century (as can be seen in old photographs/postcards or Buster Brown comics and films), and to a lesser extent after World War II (mainly in elite or high-profile families: John F. Kennedy's son at the former's funeral, British princes William and Harry in the late 1980s, etc.).
Children's shoes secured by a strap over the instep and fastened with a buckle or button appeared in the early 19th century. Originally worn by both sexes, they began to be perceived as being mostly for girls in the 1930s in North America and the 1940s in Europe. They were also popular with women in the 1920s.
Today, Mary Janes for children, particularly the more classic styles, are often considered semi-formal or formal shoes, appropriate for school (many schools worldwide require that girls wear them with their uniform), religious ceremonies, weddings, visits, and birthday parties for example. More modern styles are also worn in casual settings, however: playgrounds, shopping centers, sports (Mary Jane sneakers), etc. Although less popular than in the past, Mary Janes remain a timeless classic of children's fashion and, for many people, a symbol of girlhood.
Mary Jane was a character created by Richard Felton Outcault "Father of the Sunday Comic Strip" for his comic strip Buster Brown, which was first published in 1902. She was the "sweetheart" of the title character Buster Brown and was drawn from real life, as she was also Outcault's daughter of the same name. In Outcault's own words—and his daughter's—she was the only character drawn from life in the Buster Brown strip, although "Mrs. Brown" did resemble Outcault's wife.
In 1904, Outcault traveled to the St. Louis World's Fair and sold licenses to up to 200 companies to use the Buster Brown characters to advertise their products. Among them was the Brown Shoe Company, which later hired actors to tour the country, performing as the Buster Brown characters in theaters and stores. This strategy helped the Brown Shoe Company become the most prominently associated brand with the Buster Brown characters. The style of shoe both Buster Brown and Mary Jane wore came to be known by her name, Mary Jane.
While the classic Mary Jane still retains its wide popularity and appeal, platform style Mary Janes have also evolved since the late 1990s, with 1-cm to 3-cm (½-in to 1-in) outsoles and 8-cm to 13-cm (3-in to 5-in) "chunky" heels, often with exaggerated grommets or buckles. These styles were especially popular in the United States in the late 1990s and early 2000s, within punk rock, psychobilly, and goth subcultures. Many times the wearers would accent the look with knee-high knit socks in dark-colored stripes or patterns and/or some form of hosiery (stockings/pantyhose), and often complete the look with a plaid, pleated schoolgirl-style skirt.
Mary Janes are a popular part of kinderwhore and Lolita fashion. A pump with a strap across the instep may be referred to as a "Mary Jane pump", although it does not have the low heels or wide toe of the original Mary Jane (and a pump is generally strapless by definition).