Walk This Way: Footwear from the Stuart Weitzman Collection of Historic Shoes

Including a Conversation with Guest Curator Edward Maeder

When Imelda Marcos fled the Philippine Malacañang Palace, she left behind an estimated 2000-3000 shoes. Joan Crawford, Carmen Miranda, Mariah Carey, and Christine Aguilera are among many personalities photographed in personal shoe closets the size of bedrooms. Footwear has always been of particular interest to women, selected for style, social status, or, running a slow third, comfort and practicality.

“The Egyptians painted slaves on the bottom of sarcophagi so the slaves would be under their feet even in the next world…The ritual of Orthodox Jewish divorce has to do with removing a boot…” (Edward Maeder) Shoes are ubiquitous in language: …waiting for the other shoe to drop, walk a mile in his shoes, as comfortable as an old shoe, as tough as shoe leather, to fill someone’s shoes, the shoe is on the other foot…iconic tales such as Cinderella, The Red Shoes and The Wizard of Oz feature important footwear.

“Give a girl a good pair of shoes and she can conquer the world.” Marilyn Monroe

Walk This Way: Footwear from the Stuart Weitzman Collection of Historic Shoes features 107 pairs out of a collection of 300 leading us from 1838 through the 1980s. This is not an exhibition of pieces designed or manufactured by the collector, though his million dollar sandals will certainly catch your eye, and has some half dozen pairs from outside it.

The show is beautifully, chronologically arranged, with telling historical notes as well as some drawings. It tells a story about women, not just footwear. Many pieces look as if they were just purchased; many would happily be worn by women today.

Boudoir shoes, 1867 Paris, France – Silk, embroidery, metallic thread

Both of Guest Curator Edward Maeder’s grandmothers were dressmakers. He was sewing, knitting and embroidering before he was six. At nine, Maeder made a pair of moccasins from a kit that came from Post Toasties (cereal). “Mine, of course, were beaded, though they didn’t have beads on theirs. I couldn’t afford beads on my allowance, but I found little pieces of colored rubber insulation at an auto parts company and used them as substitutes.” He secured his first sewing machine at 11. Stuart Weitzman, who addresses Press this morning, says he almost didn’t recognize some of the 200 and 300 year-old shoes after the Guest Curator restored them.*

Maeder organizes this exhibit into illuminating categories:

Buttoned boots, 1870s

Sentimental Survivors– Fragile cloth pieces, the advent of heels which not only raise height, but “make the calf muscles flex, producing a more curvaceous, longer line…” There are even some early baby shoes from the society’s own collection.

Politics and Prosperity – The Roaring Twenties from suffragettes to “jazzy shoes… with crisscrossing straps fastened with buttons, buckles or bows…”; Popular Dances Focus on Feet– further necessity for shoes to stay on in motion while appearing jaunty.

Skyscraper Moderne – architectural influences – Art Deco, Cubist/geometric inspiration like The Radiator and Chrysler Buildings in New York, buckles resembling designs around the windows of The Empire State Building


Decorative heels

Films– Few notice that under Hedy Lamar’s costume in 1949’s  Samson and Delilah, she’s wearing bejeweled heels. See images of Lana Turner in Prodigal and Rita Hayworth as Salome. Nothing like a Biblical epic to have an excuse to decorate footwear; Performance Role Playing – See the original Kinky Boots.

Conflicts, Postwar America, and Celebrity Designers –  Wartime restrictions on material use, platform shoes

Pop Culture – open side, pointed toes, vinyls, synthetics and Turn of the Century – influenced by contemporary innovations and preoccupations. “You can tell everything about a society from its shoes.” Quotes are Edward Maeder

“Whether dressed for success, dressed to kill, or dressed down, a woman completes the impression with what she opts to put on her feet.” Valerie Paley-Director, Center for Women’s History. Vice-President and Chief Historian New York Historical Society

I for one have never understood towering stilettos favored by contemporary women and inquire of the historian. “I have a personal theory about high heels,” Maeder tells me, “A woman walking on these very narrow supports defies reason. If you’re behind, you’re subconsciously waiting for her to fall over…It’s sexy because you walk oddly.” “Wouldn’t you think,” I counter, “that something allowing women to move sinuously would be sexy, while shoes that require carefully picking up your foot to clear heel height would not be perceived that way?”

“The whole shape of the foot is about sex,” the curator responds. “That’s why in the Middle Ages the church dictated you had to wear two of the same shoes, not one made for the right and one the left. Showing the shape of the foot was considered erotic and sinful. Spike heels and stilettos, of course, came from the Italian word for a sharp, pointed dagger… Today shoes often have to do with eroticism. Look at the spikes and straps…”

“You may notice that many of the designs here look particularly uncomfortable. This might be a good place to acknowledge that the majority of women’s shoes have been designed by men. (Today we have Beth Levine – who started as a foot model and Margaret Clark among others) And yes, form has traditionally surpassed function in importance…” (Weitzman)

Until women joined the workforce, the collector points out in the introduction of an excellent book published in conjunction with the exhibition, there was no pressure to sacrifice appearance for comfort. As handmade footwear gave way to manufacturing, things changed. The show acknowledges Industrialization and Mechanization, Union Action, and the rise of Department Stores.

Weitzman is particularly proud of a sponsored city wide contest among high school students to design shoes that tell stories in two categories: a socially conscious world and the use of unusual materials. His company actually handmade a pair of each of the three, not two, winning shoes. “It took us many more trials to reproduce these than anything I ever manufactured.” Needless to say, the kids are thrilled and I’d venture to guess, based on Weitzman’s tone and expression, he had a heck of a good time doing it. Samples are on display at the end of the exhibition.

Winners are:

For Material Innovation – Danielle Fliegel (a sneaker shoe, with metallic sides and opaque bands across the front)

For Socially conscious Fashion – Samantha Efobi (a “Nudist”-style “book” shoe, with bits of newspaper across the front) and
Alivia Matthews (the slavery/Black Lives Matter shoe)

“Where future footwear fashions go remains to be seen, as newer generations face novel challenges and embrace different ideologies and aesthetics” (Edward Maeder)

Book Cover: Seymour Weitzman (1910–65), designer Mr. Seymour (founded 1950s), maker. Pointed-toe laced pumps, ca. 1964. Suede, grosgrain ribbon

CEO and President of The New York Historical Society Louise Mirrer was introduced to famed shoe designer Stuart Weitzman by former Sothby’s auctioneer David Redden. In the course of luncheon, she learned Weitzman was a collector of antique shoes. In fact, it was Weitzman’s wife, Jane Gershon Weitzman, who began gifting her husband historical, potentially inspiring shoes, tired, Maeder wryly conjectures, of giving him ties.

“Footwear is not exactly the New York Beat,” Mirrer tells us, “but we like to surprise and as you’ll see, there’s quite a lot to learn about history; objects tell a story; The New York Historical Society is, at its very core, a collection of collections.”

The show inaugurates the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery, a part of the brand new Center for Women’s History, the first at a major museum.

*Historian/restorer Edward Maeder’s background includes a laundry list of top rank studies and of curating and exhibition positions. A costume and textile expert, he was also founding Director of The Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, Canada and is active with the United States division of Honorable Cordwainers’ Company, an eclectic organization of artisanal shoemakers. (The name is an Anglicization of the French word cordonnier-shoemaker, introduced into the English language in 1066).

All Shoe Images: the Stuart Weitzman Collection, photography by Glenn Castellano, New-York Historical Society.

Walk This Way: Footwear from the Stuart Weitzman Collection of Historic Shoes
April 20-October 8, 2018
The  New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West at 77th Street

About Alix Cohen (791 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.