“I have always believed from the beginning that shoes tell a story more than covering your feet,” said shoe designer Stuart Weitzman, introducing members of the press to the New York Historical Society’s latest exhibit. “Walk This Way” bears his belief out, offering a fascinating tour through history via women’s footwear, much of it drawn from Weitzman’s own extensive collection.
“A few of you will still be scratching your heads, thinking, footwear is not exactly New York Historical’s usual beat,” said Louise Mirrer, the organization’s president and CEO, in her opening remarks. “I’ll just say, first of all, to those few of you, that we love to surprise.”
The exhibit is a visual feast and a real treat for fashion history nerds. There’s an entire case of strappy gold heels from the 1930s that will absolutely influence your summer wardrobe, and another designed around Old Hollywood, particularly the Biblical and Roman epics, handy ways to skirt the movie mores of the time. They even had a pair of pink mules that once belonged to Ginger Rogers.
“When my wife couldn’t figure out what to get me for whatever the occasions were,” Weitzman explained, walking us through the gallery and its many treasures, “She started buying and searching out and buying antique footwear.” That grew into a collection that’s been beautifully restored for the show.
Weitzman therefore made the perfect guide through the collection, keeping up a stream of friendly, matter-of-fact shoptalk whether explaining a fascinating midcentury gadget called the Spring-o-Lator—“that’s how you could wear a low-cut mule or slide and it wouldn’t fall off your feet”—or showing off a beribboned green pump made by his own father of which he was particularly proud—“He knew how to make a shoe look beautiful.”
Weitzman’s firsthand knowledge provided a funny gloss on the history of his trade, as well. He pointed out a wedding slipper from the 1830s, which had the cheaper and easier to make “straight” soles of their era. “If you complain today about shoes that kill your feet, imagine your ancestors walking around not in a left foot, not in a right foot, but in I don’t know what, a middle foot!” he said. “That’s the way they were made a hundred-some odd years ago. It was just practical.”
Closing the show was a trio of shoes designed by New York City high school students, as part of a contest. “It took us certainly many more trials to recreate those shoes that they made by hand than it ever took me to make a shoe that I produced for the marketplace,” Weitzman informed us, sounding simultaneously amused by and proud of the students’ creativity. “They were challenges, and we enjoyed doing it.” One winner—in a category devoted to social messages—had taken as her inspiration the Billie Holiday song “Strange Fruit.”
Frankly, a room full of beautifully restored shoes would have been plenty fascinating on its own, even without additional context. But the exhibit does a savvy job of using specific shoes as a way into larger stories. For instance, two display cases pair the glittery, party-going shoes of the early 20th century “New Woman” with the high-button boots suffragists might have worn marching along Fifth Avenue, offering a truly on-the-ground slice of life from an era of important changes. Another section talks about the strong representation of women in shoe factories at the turn of the century and their involvement in the labor movement; the Daughters of St. Crispin, composed of shoemakers, was in fact the first national women’s trade union in the country.
The most emotionally powerful moment comes at the beginning of the show, in a section of items from the New York Historical Society’s own collection. Sharing a case are a pair of men’s shoes, which carried their owner safely away from the World Trade Center site on 9/11; and a child’s tiny shoes recovered from the wreck of the General Slocum, a steamboat that sank in 1904, while carrying residents of the Lower East Side’s German-American community to a church picnic. Killing 1,021 people, largely women and children, it’s a classic story of negligence and was the worst disaster in New York City’s history. Until, that is, 9/11.
There’s something spooky about seeing events so big packed into literally human-sized footprints. It transforms the entire, lovely show into a visceral reminder that history is experienced on the most intimate scale.
Walk This Way: Footwear from the Stuart Weitzman Collection of Historic Shoes runs through October 8 at the New York Historical Society.