Best Foot Forward: Beth Levine – The First Lady of Shoes

Cher did it.  Marilyn Monroe and Nancy Sinatra did too, as did the swinging stewardesses of Braniff airlines.  That Mamie Eisenhower wore Beth Levine’s shoes, as well, is testament to their wide-ranging appeal and acceptance as the ne plus ultra footwear of their day.  Beth Levine’s creativity and craft are on display through January 3rd at the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook, NY.

Photo2Though she outfitted movie stars and Presidents’ wives, it’s Beth Levine who is being celebrated as the First Lady of shoes in a fun and fascinating exhibition filled with shoes, photographs, videos and glimpses into the materials and designs that both set and broke trends.  Helene Verin, a recognized expert on Levine’s designs from the Fashion Institute of Technology, guest curated the exhibition.  The Long Island Museum has organized and presented some 150 objects in its art museum to give a sense of how and why this farm girl from Long Island became a fashion icon.

Photo3Levine is credited with developing and popularizing ankle straps, mules, stiletto heels and boots of all forms while proving, in the early and mid 20th century, that American designers were capable of outpacing their European counterparts.  In the exhibition, the elegant, the trendy, and the wildly imaginative are all on display.  The white go-go boots Nancy Sinatra wore for the cover of her hit single were designed by Levine, and the fishnet stockings and miniskirts that went with them expressed the revolutionary mindset of the 1960s.  “These Boots are Made for Walkin'” plays in the gallery, a perfect soundtrack for the designs on display.  In fact, Levine’s boots became so popular that Saks Fifth Avenue created a boutique within the store, “Beth’s Bootery,” and a wall of the exhibition pays homage to it, displaying examples from ankle to thigh-high in lizard, velvet brocade, plastic and mesh.

Photo4Some of the most striking of Levine’s creations hardly look like shoes at all.  There are mules in red and yellow leather with overlaps and curls that recall mobiles by Alexander Calder.  Gold toned wedge heels resemble Brancusi sculptures.  There’s a pair of sandals lined in Astroturf that might have come from the imagination of a conceptual artist, like Joseph Beuys.

Photo5A summer boot in bold colors and mixed materials atop a psychedelic base could easily have stepped out of a Peter Max poster.   A case filled with decorated and jeweled heels looks like a collection of Fabergé eggs.

Photo6Indeed, Levine sought and found inspiration from a wide range of sources.   After leaving the farm for the big city, Levine started as a shoe model.  She kept coming up with tweaks that would make them more comfortable or practical.  When no one listened, she and her husband started their own shoe company in 1948.  It was called Herbert Levine, Inc. to conform to the male-dominated industry at the time.  But the driving creative force was always Beth.  She was endlessly inventive, and like many artists, absorbed ideas from all around her.   In 1955, Levine traveled to China, Thailand, Japan, Burma, India and Egypt to search for new ideas, techniques and materials.   An ankle boot embroidered with golden thread would be fit to strut through courts from classical India or Persia to the Venetian Renaissance or Imperial Russia.

Photo7Levine’s designs garnered her two Coty Awards – the equivalent of an Oscar for fashion.  She is the only shoe designer to have a pair.  Even so, few designers reach the level where their creations are acknowledged by museums as works of art.  Beth Levine’s shoes put her squarely in this territory.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art gave her an exhibition in the 1970’s.   The Long Island Museum’s retrospective offers another chance to see not only the original creations that were so important and successful that they’ve become the classical standards of today, but also startlingly original designs by a fearless and visionary spirit.

Beth Levine:The First Lady of Shoes
through January 3, 2016
Long Island Museum, 1200 Route 25A in Stony Brook, NY
Main Gallery, Art Museum

All photos by Adel Gorgy

Photo captions:

Red Satin Embroidered Pump by Beth Levine at The Long Island Museum

Photo 2
Beth Levine is credited for having invented stiletto heels

Photo 3
“Split Level,” 1957. Classic designs with enduring appeal.

Beth Levine’s boots defined an era

A pair of Levine’s statement boots

A case of heels provides insight into the design process

Photo 7
Beth Levine’s “Chi Chi Boot,” 1963,  still looks chic today