“Give a girl a great pair of shoes and watch her take over the world,” once said Marilyn Monroe. Stuart Weitzman reminisced on the power of that quote while giving a preview of his upcoming exhibition, “Walk This Way: Footwear from the Stuart Weitzman Collection of Historic Shoes” at New York Historical Society.
The New York Historical Society may not be thought of traditionally as the museum of choice for footwear exhibits, but this curation, by Valerie Paley, vice president and chief historian and director of the Center for Women’s History, Edward Maeder, and Jeanne Gardner Gutierrez, places the subject of ladies’ shoes in a cultural and historical context.
“I’ve always believed that shoes tell a deeper story, way more than just covering your feet,” Weitzman said. The designer credits his wife, Jane Gershon Weitzman, for his massive archive of shoes, many seen in the exhibit. Early in their marriage she was unsure about what to gift him and ultimately decided to gift him antique footwear, and from there the collection grew. The archive, he remarked, proved to be a constant source of inspiration.
The exhibit pulls from Weitzman’s private archive as well as pieces owned by the historical society and engages with the story of the women’s shoe from the themes of the collection, consumption , presentation, production and design. The curation explores larger trends in American economic history, from industrialization to the rise of consumer culture with a focus on women’s contributions as producers, consumers, designers and entrepreneurs.
The exhibit begins with a shoe that helped put Weitzman on the map, known as “The Million Dollar Sandals.” Originally worn on the red carpet at the Oscars in 2002 by “Mulholland Drive” actress Laura Harring, and adorned with 464 Kwiat diamonds, it is reproduced with Swarovski crystals.
Museum patrons will also encounter a case of shoes from the Twenties for the “New Woman” archetype who wore lace-up boots to march for suffrage in the day and donned Mary Jane’s at night to dance the Charleston. Another case is full of shoes designed solely by female designers from the Fifties, highlighting that before that time, women’s shoes were almost exclusively designed by men and had straight soles, which were easier and cheaper to make than “crooked-soled” shoes, which differentiated left from right.
The exhibition features a section on Beth Levine, the “first lady of shoe design,” who ran Herbert Levine Inc., a company named for her husband because it seemed “right at the time that a shoemaker was a man.” Levine introduced luxurious materials and innovative designs like the “spring-o-lator,” a strip of elastic tape to keep backless shoes on the wearer’s feet.
But the shoes Weitzman coudn’t stop gushing about are the three pairs in the final case of the exhibit, which isn’t about the past, but the future. In 2017, Weitzman and the New York Historical Society sponsored a design competition for high school students in the tristate area. The students were invited to submit designs in two categories: Socially Conscious Fashion and Material Innovation. The winning designs in each category were then fabricated by Weitzman. He was so impressed with the submissions that he couldn’t decide and declared a tie in the socially conscious category. One winner made shoes that embodied the story of the African-American struggle and the cowinner in this category produced shoes inspired by women being denied an education in some cultures around the world. A pair of shoes using metal screening, elastic, lambskin, peralized styrofoam and silver ruched plastic won for material design.
“In today’s world, we couldn’t have picked better subjects than socially conscience and material innovation. It took many more trials to re-create those shoes then any shoe I produced for the marketplace. They put their heart into the shoes,” Weitzman said.
The exhibit is on view at the New York Historical Society from April 20 through Oct. 8.