A new exhibition at the Paine Art Center and Gardens explores how shoes have transcended their utilitarian purpose to become representations of culture — coveted as objects of desire, designed with artistic consideration, and expressing complicated meanings of femininity, power and aspiration for women and men alike.
On view June 26 through Oct. 10 in the Main Gallery at the Paine, “Walk This Way: Footwear from the Stuart Weitzman Collection of Historic Shoes” highlights 100 pairs of shoes from the iconic designer’s extensive private collection, assembled over three decades with his wife, Jane Gershon Weitzman.
Organized and first presented by the New York Historical Society, the exhibition received glowing praise when it debuted in 2018. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Laura Jacobs said: “Nimble and often glittering, the show encapsulates the evolution of women’s shoes over the past 180 years — and also speaks to the history of shoemaking in America. It is a delight at every turn …” In response to this acclaim, The New York Historical Society decided to travel the exhibition to four additional venues, and the Paine in Oshkosh was able secure one of the coveted slots.
The exhibition considers the story of the shoe from the perspectives of collection, consumption, presentation and production. It 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.
As Stuart Weitzman himself expresses in the exhibition catalogue, shoes “tell an almost infinite number of stories. Stories of conformity and independence, culture and class, politics and performance.”
Among the many highlights in “Walk This Way” are shoes of historic value that have survived the years to tell stories of the past, such as a pair of pink silk embroidered boudoir shoes created especially for the 1867 Paris Universal Exposition that reflected Western consumers’ clamor for “exotic” textiles in an era of European imperial expansion. Family heirlooms, such as satin bridal slippers or baby shoes, serve as personal mementos while demonstrating the implications of collecting. The exhibition also includes artifacts from the New York Historical Society, including brass and bronze shoe buckles from a Revolutionary War officer’s shoes (1760-83) that were excavated in Washington Heights, and a pair of leather child’s shoes (ca. 1904) that were recovered from a victim of the tragic General Slocum steamship fire.
The early 20th century witnessed a revolution in the way women dressed, moved and acted in public, as the floor-length gowns of the late 1800s gradually gave way to shorter skirts and slim silhouettes. Dance halls flourished, and manufacturers produced intricately beaded evening shoes with buttoned straps that kept shoes secure while women danced the tango or the Charleston.
The country also saw a revolution in women’s political participation, when the fight for the vote moved from the drawing room to the streets and hundreds of women marched down Fifth Avenue in America’s first suffrage parade in May 1910. Many suffragists wore practical but stylish shoes, such as the black leather and white felt high-buttoned boots (ca. 1920), spectator pumps and lace-up shoes on view in the exhibition.
The dawn of department stores at the turn of the century created a place of leisure for affluent women and employment opportunities for working women, so retailers began to compete for customers with colorful advertisements and celebrity endorsements. Stores like Saks Fifth Avenue offered glamorous shoes like red velvet and gold T-strap pumps (ca. 1937) or peep-toe mules with clear Lucite flowered heels (mid-1950s). The fashion industry also partnered with Hollywood to create custom shoes for motion pictures and celebrities—such as Salvatore Ferragamo’s handmade black needlepoint Tuscan lace heels (c. 1954-55) designed for Italian actress Sophia Loren — which inspired consumers to purchase similar styles to emulate their film idols.
“Walk This Way” also explores the process of shoemaking, examining shoe production and the role of women in the footwear field, one of the first industries to embrace large-scale mechanization. By 1850, shoemaking was America’s second-largest industry after agriculture, and as of 1909, New York was the third-largest producer of shoes in the country. In the early 1900s, when women made up less than 20% of the total industrial workforce, one-third of the workers in shoe factories were women. Women became active in trade unions like the Daughters of St. Crispin, named after the patron saint of shoemakers, and the International Boot & Shoe Workers Union, participating in strikes to protest low wages and poor treatment. Considered radical for its time, by 1904 the Boot & Shoe Workers Union constitution called for “uniform wages for the same class of work, regardless of sex.” An intricately beaded shoe (c. 1915), stamped with the union seal, shows off the quality of American shoemaking.
By the second half of the 20th century, women designers had made a significant impact but were often hidden behind the scenes. The exhibition profiles Beth Levine (1914-2006) — the “First Lady of Shoe Design” — who ran Herbert Levine, Inc., a company named for her husband because “it seemed right that a shoemaker was a man.” Levine introduced luxurious new materials and innovative new designs like the “Spring-o-lator,” a strip of elastic tape to keep backless shoes on the wearer’s feet.
The exhibition is on view at the Paine daily, Monday through Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $12 for adults and $7 for youth, and includes touring the Paine mansion and gardens.
Reservations are recommended. Learn more and make reservations at www.thepaine.org/.