Footwear in Step with Labor Activism, Suffrage, and the Sexual Revolution Through June 6
Taft Museum of Art
From silk boudoir shoes created for the 1867 Paris Exposition to leather spectator pumps signed by the 1941 New York Yankees, Walk This Way features more than 100 striking pairs of shoes. Organized by the New-York Historical Society, the Taft Museum of Art will present this special exhibition through June 6, 2021.
Spanning nearly 200 years, the historic footwear—from the collection of high-fashion shoe designer Stuart Weitzman—will be on view for the first time in the Midwest. Weitzman’s wife, businesswoman and philanthropist Jane Gershon Weitzman, formed and added to the collection as a gift to her husband over their 50 years of marriage.
An integral part of our everyday lives, shoes not only protect our feet, but tell stories centered around women’s labor activism, the fight for suffrage, and the sexual revolution. They also serve as pathways toward discovering the vital role women and diverse historical narratives played in both the production and consumption of footwear.
In this exhibition, women take center stage as the show explores a variety of shoes, including those worn by suffragists as they marched through the streets, Jazz Age flappers as they danced the Charleston, and starlets who graced the silver screen in the postwar era. Walk This Way features the footwear designs of Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Salvatore Ferragamo, and Beth Levine—the “First Lady of Shoe Design”—as well as shoes by Stuart Weitzman himself.
Walk This Way gives us incredible insight into the history of women’s footwear as well as women’s active role in making history. Through an exploration of the shoes on display, guests will learn about everything from women protesting for more equitable wages in the late 1800s to shoes that showcase the rise of the first female designers and executives in the workforce.
Walk This Way also gives the Taft a chance to tell the story of shoemaking in Cincinnati, which is an important part of the Queen City’s rich history.” — Dr. Ann Glasscock, assistant curator at the Taft Museum of Art.
Recently ranked by Forbes as a top exhibition to see nationwide in 2021, Walk This Way considers the story of the shoe from the perspectives of collecting, presentation, consumption, production, and design. It explores larger trends in American economic history, from industrialization to the rise of consumer culture, with a focus on women’s contributions as makers, consumers, designers, and entrepreneurs.
As Stuart Weitzman himself expresses in the exhibition catalog, 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. Examples include a pair of silk embroidered boudoir shoes created especially for the 1867 Paris Universal Exposition as well as family heirlooms, such as satin bridal slippers that also demonstrate the importance of collecting and preservation.
The exhibition also features a number of shoes from the early 20th century, which 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 the shorter skirts and slim silhouettes of the Jazz Age, women’s feet became a new focal point. 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 home to the streets. In New York City, hundreds of women marched down Fifth Avenue in one of America’s first suffrage parades on May 21, 1910. Many suffragists wore practical but stylish shoes, such as leather and felt high-buttoned boots, 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 or peep-toe mules with clear Lucite heels. The fashion industry also partnered with Hollywood to create custom shoes for motion pictures and celebrities—such as Salvatore Ferragamo’s 1950s heels with handmade needlepoint lace 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 by the end of the century, Cincinnati, Ohio had become one of the largest manufacturers of boots and shoes in the United States. A special exhibition showcase includes locally made footwear and ephemera.
In the early 1900s, when women made up less than 20 percent 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 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 “the name sounded like a shoemaker.” 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.
Also on view will be three unique shoe designs by finalists in the Stuart Weitzman Footwear Design competition, submitted by New York metro-area high school students in the categories of socially conscious fashion or material innovation.
Lastly, the exhibition includes several items from the New-York Historical Society’s collection, such as a pair of pumps by Mabel Julianelli, considered “America’s No. 1 shoe designer for women” in 1940, and a pair of red high-heeled boots from the hit Broadway musical Kinky Boots, which features the drag queen Lola.