Fancy Feet

Seymour Weitzman (1910–65), designer. Mr. Seymour (founded 1950s), maker. Pointed-toe laced pumps, ca. 1964. Suede, grosgrain ribbon. Stuart Weitzman Collection, no. 269. Photo: Glenn Castellano, New-York Historical Society
The New-York Historical Society struts Stuart Weitzman's prized collection of vintage shoes

Stuart Weitzman, the iconic luxury shoe designer, was recently asked why he and his wife, Jane Gershon Weitzman, started collecting historic shoes.

“My wife couldn't figure out what to get me for occasions, so she started buying antique footwear, ladies shoes, which taught me a lot about history.... They've been wonderful inspirations that continually spring up in my collections,” he said on a tour of the New-York Historical Society's new exhibit, featuring 100 pairs of shoes from his personal archive. Artifacts from the museum's collection are also included in the show, on view in the Joyce B. Cowin Women's History Gallery.

As Louise Mirrer, the Society's president and CEO, tells it: “This institution, at its very core, is a collection of collections.... Our longstanding theme at the New-York Historical Society is that objects tell stories. And these objects tell very many of them.”

Weitzman, who teaches at The Wharton School, added, “I have always believed from the beginning that shoes tell a story more than covering your feet.”

Some muses: “Audrey Hepburn. Before flats were flats, she was cool enough and confident enough to wear flats with pants, right alongside Marilyn Monroe, who couldn't be seen unless she was in a 4-inch heel. So each one of them used the shoe to say something about who they were.”

The first story magically begins on the red carpet (literally) with Weitzman's famous “Million Dollar Sandals.” The original pair boasted 464 Kwiat diamonds and was worn by actress Laura Elena Harring (“Mulholland Drive”) to the 2002 Oscars. A reproduction, with Swarovski crystals, is on display here.

“She was photographed more times in this shoe with the Armani dress than Halle Berry who won the Oscar for 'Monster's Ball,'” Weitzman said with relish about the strappy stilettos that inspired the shoe-cam. Per women's history scholar Jeanne Gardner Gutierrez: “Until million-dollar shoes walked the red carpet, no one thought to bring the gaze footward to the shoes.”

The exhibit mines the story of footwear from four points of view — collection, consumption, presentation and production — with a focus on women's contributions “as producers, consumers, designers, and entrepreneurs,” the organizers state.

The story moves from the glamour of the red carpet to moving historical touchstones such as 9/11 and the General Slocum steamship fire in 1904, in which 1,000 mostly German immigrant women and children died en route to a church picnic. It was the deadliest event in New York City history until September 11, 2001.

Both tragedies are movingly remembered by the shoes they wore — a 3-year-old fire victim's leather lace-ups and a surviving attorney's first pair of Ferragamos. The lawyer, Paul Wysocki, navigated 57 flights of stairs down the North Tower and a journey home to 52nd Street in tassel loafers. He tossed the shoes, but his wife salvaged them, relics of the city's darkest hour.

Objects of historical value give way to a dizzying array of fashion statements that mirror women's evolving roles in American society and economic changes over the last 200 years. They began as piece workers — stitchers at home — and gradually moved into factories and became active in shoemaker unions like the Daughters of St. Crispin, the first national women's trade union.

When hemlines rose at the turn of the 20th century, attention veered to legs and feet, paving the way for stylish foot apparel. According to Weitzman, “The high-buttoned shoe was created when dresses started getting a little shorter. Society wasn't ready to see a bit of your calf, so the shoe went up the leg.”

Suffragettes paraded down Fifth Avenue in these boots and sturdy spectator pumps, while proto-flappers danced the night away in glittery shoes with straps that buttoned so they wouldn't fly off. The wares for work and play are showcased in side-by-side vitrines.

The shoe trade was a man's world until well into the 20th century, with women mostly working behind the scenes. As Gutierrez said, “The aesthetics behind women's shoes so often had to do with what men found attractive, not what women found appealing or comfortable.” That is, until the women's movement helped shift the paradigm and bring comfort to the fore.

The exhibit boasts a profusion of styles — pumps, mules, Mary Janes, open-toe sling-backs, peep-toe platforms, wedges, T-straps, stilettos, and gold and silver sandals inspired by retro-Hollywood film epics. A wealth of materials and embellishments — beads, buttons, bows and brocade — vie with cutting-edge technology to tell the story of a functional item that can telegraph femininity, class, culture, power, performance and sheer sexiness with the flash of an ankle.

Beth Levine (1914-2006), whose shoes were worn by first ladies, is paid special tribute in two cases. Levine, known as the First Lady of Shoe Design, popularized the now-defunct “Spring-o-lator,” a nifty piece of elastic tape in the insole of a mule or slide to prevent slippage. Per Weitzman: “The elastic lining would push you into the top of the shoe and hold you in place.”

Such ingenuity lives on in the exhibit's in-the-moment finale, showcasing the three high-school winners of a metro-area shoe-design contest. Think sneakers with metal screening and Styrofoam soles — and more.