Organized by the New-York Historical Society, “Walk This Way: Footwear from the Stuart Weitzman Collection of Historic Shoes” is a delight, sure to tantalize everyone with a foot fetish, or, at least, an awareness of how shoes make the man, or in this case, the woman. The 100 or so pairs shown span a couple of centuries and were designed for those of the female persuasion including Kinky Boots that were created for the drag queen star of the Broadway musical of the same name.
In the book accompanying the exhibition, Edward Maeder, curator and founding director of the Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, holds the view of many that clothing, jewelry, and, of course, shoes are “the most accurate social and cultural indicator of any time period.”
Maeder continues, “Fashion can instantly communicate status, age, gender, ethnicity, social, religious, and cultural pressures on individuals and societies, as well as the aspirations, preoccupations, aesthetics, and fantasies of any given age.”
The collection is made up of gifts from Weitzman’s wife, the businesswoman and philanthropist Jane Gershon, over the course of 50 years of marriage. Weitzman says that the purpose of the collection is “to preserve and celebrate unusual and elegant detail and construction, and to provide an inspiration to me in the creation of my seasonal presentations.”
Assistant curator and decorative arts specialist at the Taft, Dr. Ann Glasscock, declares, “‘Walk This Way’ gives us incredible insight into the history of women’s footwear as well as women’s active role in making history.”
Maeder notes, “We believe that our clothes cover us, when in fact they reveal our true selves.” Carolyn Cox in her 2008 book Vintage Shoes: Collecting and Wearing Twentieth-Century Designer Footwear, wrote “Clothing–and footwear–is the perhaps most accurate social and cultural indicator of any time period.”
Stuart Weitzman Collection, no. 101. Photo credit: Glenn Castellano, New-York Historical Society. These Boudoir Shoes won a medal at the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris
Analyzing the shoes on the basis of design, aesthetics, or date of production would have turned the display into a large shoe store. Instead Maeder arranged the exhibition around six themes: Collecting, Presentation, Consumption, Production, Design, and The Red Carpet. (I think the divisions can be quibbled with.) Wall panels and labels provide the much needed context.
These Wedding Shoes, worn for the nuptials of Caroline Howard and the Reverend Thomas Marsh Clark on October 2, 1838, illustrate the early 19th century style of “straight soles,” meaning that there is no differentiation between the right and left foot. Something I never considered.
The choice of shoes affects how people present–or want to present–themselves in the world.
These Open-toe Mules belonged to Ginger Rogers and reminded me of a quote from Ann Richards, Texas governor from 1991-1995: “After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”
In the mid-19th century women in factories began making their presence known by organizing unions. Woman also marched for suffrage in low-heeled shoes that were comfortable but also stylish. The 19th Amendment, ratified on August 18, 1920, gave women the right to vote.
World War I altered everything, and the position of women in the world changed dramatically. No more demure, floor-length gowns worn with boots to modestly cover the erogenous sight of bare legs, which were bound to inflame male libido.
Shorter skirts showed off the leg and shoes. The corseted hourglass figure went out of fashion, replaced by a slim boyish silhouette. Watch the last few episodes of Downton Abbey, and you can see the change with the Dowager Duchess sticking to the styles of her youth as Mary bobs her hair and shortens her skirts. The New Woman had been born.
Newly empowered she enrolled in college, played sports, and began entering occupations that had been closed to them, such as the law. The New Woman danced the “animal” dances, such as the foxtrot, the bunny hug, and turkey trot, and the scandalous tango. Beaded and embroidered shoes flashed on the dance floor.
The unfortunately named Consumption section chronicles the radical change in the retail landscape as department stores (yesteryear’s mall) gathered all types of merchandise under one roof. Mail-order catalogs (proto-Amazon) started appearing in mailboxes. Montgomery Ward’s started as a one-pager in 1872 and grew to a 540-page illustrated book selling over 20,000 items.
Before 1850, respectable ladies needed to have a male escort in public. With the development of upscale retail districts like New York’s Ladies Mile, women were freed from masculine impatience. Shopping became a social event. Ladies could stroll down Park Avenue South and do a little window shopping. Attracted by the artfully displayed items (anticipating the groundbreaking Barneys windows by Simon Doonan in the ’80s and ’90s), they could enter the store to examine the merchandise more closely, to browse and buy, their purchases conveyed home by their chauffeur. Genteel department store tea rooms and restaurants became places where ladies could meet friends for refreshment and to recharge for more shopping.
Department stores also changed the lives of working class women who often toiled in unsafe conditions in factories for less pay than their male counterparts. Now they had the opportunity to be salesclerks, buyers, designers, even executives.
Films inspired street fashion. In the 1940s and 1950s, historical dramas like Samson and Delilah (1949), Salome (1953), and The Prodigal (1955), set in Biblical times, were popular. Sandals were common footwear in the Middle East but nothing like what costume designers dreamed up for these “sword and sandal” films.
Wandering through “Walk This Way,” I found myself focusing on how the shoes fit into daily life (Maeder’s own focus, I believe) and not particularly on their aesthetic merits. As a (not terribly good) tango dancer, I had a special bias. Would the shoes be comfortable on the dance floor? Do I have the right outfit to wear them with? (I’ve purchased shoes and then gone looking for the appropriate dress).
“Walk This Way” warrants a lot of looking. Don’t run through it. Just plan another visit. Forbes ranks it a top exhibition to see in 2021.
–Karen S. Chambers