Walk This Way: Footwear From the Stuart Weitzman Collection of Historic Shoes, at the New-York Historical Society through Oct. 8, is a sumptuous display of over 100 shoes from the shoe designer’s own private collection.
Weitzman grew up immersed in midcentury shoes: His father, Seymour, owned the Mr. Seymour shoe factory and label in Haverhill, Massachusetts—known as the “Queen Slipper City”—back when northern Massachusetts was the heart of America’s shoemaking industry. Young Stuart had no intention of taking over the business; he went to Wharton intending to be a Wall Street titan. But when Seymour died at age 55, in 1965, Stuart came back to help run Mr. Seymour. He was just 22. Soon he began designing under his own name.
Starting at the turn of the millennium, Weitzman’s marketing genius really showed: He set up “gifting suites” at awards shows and began making a pair of “million-dollar shoes” for a celebrity to wear every season. (The 2002 shoes he made for actress Laura Elena Harring of Mulholland Drive to wear to the Academy Awards were covered in 464 diamonds; the version in the exhibit employs Swarovski crystals, because you can’t be too careful.) His shoes have been worn by Beyoncé, Queen Latifah, Jennifer Aniston, Gigi Hadid, Cate Blanchett, Kerry Washington, and Chrissy Teigen. Weitzman—who’s involved in Jewish causes like the Jewish Book Council, JTA, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and The National Museum of American Jewish History—sold the company to Coach in 2015 for $574 million.
A few of the shoes on display at the Historical Society were designed by Weitzman himself, but most are older, reflecting his interest in the history of women’s footwear design. Alas, the exhibit is too diffuse and scattershot to fulfill the museum’s lofty promise of exploring “trends in American economic history, from industrialization to the rise of consumer culture.” It’s best to approach it as a twinkly whirl of gorgeousness that sparks big ideas without actually investigating them in any depth.
Somewhat arbitrarily broken into sections titled The Red Carpet, Collecting, Presentation, Consumption, and Production, the show zigzags through 19th- and 20th-century footwear, focusing on women’s walking shoes and fancy shoes. It dips into the ways in which architecture and film influenced shoe design, and dances around the rise and fall of the American shoe industry. It looks at the careers of a few women in the business, and displays shoes designed by New York City high schoolers as part of a competition. In the hall outside the gallery is a section on fantasy shoes commissioned by Jane Gershon Weitzman for display in her husband’s store windows. These shoes are made of corrugated cardboard, copper wire, and ice-blue-molded resin that looks like a magical ocean wave. There’s a clunky industrial work boot wittily covered in Swarovski crystals, stained glass, mosaic glass tiles, and faceted glass gems. It’s probably saying something about gender roles.
Since there isn’t much of a narrative, content yourself with reveling in the pretty. Behold the pair of lavishly inlaid mother-of-pearl 19th-century Ottoman bath clogs on wooden stilts, and the delicate pair of 1867 beribboned pink French silk boudoir shoes embroidered with glittery gilt metallic thread. Coo at the series of adorable teensy late-19th- and early-20th-century leather baby shoes with tiny buttons; the wall text notes that back then, both the pink and the blue shoes would both have been considered gender neutral. Later in the show, when you admire Billy Porter’s gleaming red patent leather thigh-high platform boots from Kinky Boots, you may ponder the fact that back in the day, high heels were neither a marker of femininity nor of transgender transgressiveness. Sixteenth-century noblemen wore heels because they helped feet stay in the stirrups when on horseback and were a sign of status, just as they later were for women; heels showed others that you weren’t a laborer. Do not think too hard about questions of gender, though, because the show does not answer them. When you reach the part of the exhibit mentioning that the rise of department stores changed the way women occupied public space, allowing “respectable women” to be out and about without a male chaperone, you may raise an eyebrow as you ruminate on the role of both race and class in this liberation. You may wonder about the strictures of pink-collar retail jobs for women. Again, let these thoughts go. Enjoy the sparkles.
And you may look at a pair of 1980s rhinestone-encrusted stratospheric stilettos and think about the “Cruel Shoes” bit on that Steve Martin comedy album you listened to as a child (“One shoe had a right-angle turn with separate compartments that pointed the toes in impossible directions; the other was six inches long and curled inward like a rocking chair with a vise and razor blades to hold the foot in place”) and you may fret about the cultural and economic forces that make women yearn for the Cruel Shoes. You may muse about whether there are penalties for women who opt out of the painful footwear game. (The King of the Red-Soled Stiletto, Christian Louboutin, once said, “I would hate for someone to look at my shoe and say, ‘Oh my God! That looks so comfortable!’”) You may speculate about what the recent rise of deliberately ugly orthopedic sandals among young women—a trend that’s not even hinted at here—means. Let all of this go. Ooh and aah at the Plexiglas and crystal “glass slippers” Weitzman himself designed for the 2013 revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella on Broadway. Let the fairy tale of shoes sweep away your critical faculties.
Here are some more lovely things you will see: Rhinestone mules belonging to Ginger Rogers. Twinkly, flashy T-strap Jazz Age dance shoes, showed off to best advantage by the era’s higher hemlines. Heels influenced by art deco geometry and symmetry, the right angles of cubism, the swerving lines and curves of futurism. Kicky leather-and-suede spectator pumps signed by the 1941 Yankees, thought to have belonged to an unnamed girlfriend of Joe DiMaggio’s (she’s identified in the show as “the A1 Girl Fan of the Yanks”). Leg-flaunting gold and silver lace-up sandals inspired by biblical and gladiator epics of the 1940s and ’50s … which were themselves inspired by the desire to evade the strictures of the Production Code of 1930. Slinky togas and sexy footwear were allowable under the code in the interest of historical accuracy.
There are a couple of deliberately somber, not-beautiful moments, like the pair of men’s designer shoes worn by attorney Paul Wysocki on Sept. 11, 2001. Wysocki climbed down 57 flights of stairs to escape the World Trade Center’s North Tower and walked home to 52nd Street. He promptly threw out the battered, dust-covered shoes—his first pair of Ferragamos—but his wife retrieved them from the trash for the sake of family history. And there are the little button shoes of 3-year-old Anna Liebenow, who died in the General Slocum disaster of 1904, in which a paddleboat on a pleasure cruise caught fire and killed over 1,000 people, mostly women and children. It was New York City’s deadliest disaster until 9/11.
The section of the show that focuses on women designers—most of them Jewish—is perhaps the most tightly edited; here, the wall text does more heavy lifting than the shoes. Of special interest: the glorious Lucite peep-toe mules from the 1950s designed by Beth Levine (1914-2006), “The First Lady of Shoe Design.” Born Elizabeth Katz in Patchogue, New York, daughter of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants who ran a dairy farm, Levine started her career as a foot model—she was a size 4B(!). She soon became a designer, and in 1948, she launched her own label, Herbert Levine, with her husband. Why was his name on the shoes when she was the designer and he was just the sales manager? “It seemed right that a shoemaker was a man,” she said. The response goes unremarked upon in the exhibit.
Levine brought mules, stilettos, and stocking boots—a number of which you can see in the show—to the American public. Jackie Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, and Patricia Nixon all wore her designs. She made Barbra Streisand’s shoes for Funny Girl and Nancy Sinatra’s vinyl go-go boots for “These Boots Were Made For Walkin’.” The latter kicked off such a craze that Saks Fifth Avenue opened a special section called Beth’s Bootery to cater to her fans. Levine pioneered the “Spring-o-lator,” a grippy, bouncy elastic insert in backless shoes that kept women’s feet from sliding around. She made an agreement with the patent holder, Maxwell Sachs, for its exclusive use at first, but he ultimately sold to other shoe designers, too. “Everyone wants to be first, second,” Levine sniffed. Today, her work is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
There is also a quick look back at I. Miller, whose legend is still carved on the lintel of the flagship store on 46th and Broadway (designed by Louis Friedland): “The Show Folks’ Shoe Shop, Dedicated to Beauty in Footwear.” Israel Miller, a Jewish shoemaker from East Prussia, founded the company in 1895 and made shows for stars of stage, screen, and society. At the time of his death in 1929, he had a chain of 16 stores, hundreds of franchises, and three factories. Today, of course, most of our shoes aren’t made in America.
The exhibit’s brief history of shoe manufacturing and sales mentions the 1860 shoemakers’ strike in Lynn, Massachusetts, and dispenses with the rise and fall of American manufacturing in a line or two. Which makes sense, since Weitzman moved his own manufacturing out of the United States. If you want to know more about globalization, read a book. Right now, check out the luscious, emerald green, suede pointy-toed pump designed by Mr. Seymour in Haverhill!
Do I wish the show really did tell the story of American women through their footwear? Sure. Or that it concentrated more narrowly on the history and semiotics of the high heel and the cultural and market forces that maintain its primacy? Yeah. But maybe it’s enough—especially now when everything seems so dire—to let the big ideas flit through your mind and disappear like a footprint in the sand as you stroll through the museum, ogling one gorgeous thing after another. As the fantasy novelist Patrick Rothfuss once put it, “You don’t want the world destroyed because, you know, that’s where your shoes are.”
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.