Mention shoe collecting, and the first image that might spring to mind is a woman’s closet overstuffed with hundreds of chic heels, à la Carrie Bradshaw, Sarah Jessica Parker’s character on Sex and the City.
However, there are plenty of museums that collect footwear. New York City alone boasts the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology), and the Museum of the City of New York. Shoes can be found in unexpected places, such as the Division of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, or even the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC (which has several pairs of astronaut boots).
The New-York Historical Society also collects footwear, ranging from a pair of boots belonging to a WWII army photographer to a pair of Kinky Boots worn onstage in the Tony Award-winning musical. Rather than illustrating cutting-edge style or the artistry of a particular designer, these shoes tell stories. Preserved from the wear and tear of daily life, they are elevated from mundane objects to historic witnesses. Footwear from the New-York Historical Society appears alongside the Stuart Weitzman Collection of Historic Shoes in Walk This Way, now on view in the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery.
With a focus on the women who designed, manufactured, bought, sold, and collected footwear, this is the story of the shoe as it has never been told before.
“I need to live in new shoes”
Consider a pair of pointe shoes worn by Heather Watts, a New York City Ballet principal. The life of a toe shoe is arduous and short: dancers often “break in” their shoes by slamming them in doors or bashing them with hammers, and a dancer in a particularly challenging role may go through one or more pairs of pointe shoes in a single performance.
Watts, who joined the company in 1970, wore these shoes for her farewell performance in 1995. She danced George Balanchine’s Bugaku, which showcased her ability to perform extreme leg extensions. The worn-down toes of Watts’s shoes hint at the sheer physical exertion required of a principal dancer, which leads most ballerinas to retire around age 40. Watts was 41 when she left the stage, and afterwards told an interviewer from the New York Times, “I need to live in new shoes.”
Charmingly, the New-York Historical Society also holds around ten pairs of nineteenth-century baby shoes. In 1937, Mrs. J. Harper Skillin, née Constance Schermerhorn, donated two pairs that had been passed down through generations of her family, descendants of New York’s original Dutch settlers. Along with the shoes, she included many other accessories and household objects, such as a pair of child’s white leather gloves, jewelry, and silverware (including special spoons for mustard and salt). Together, these objects offer a glimpse into the everyday life of a wealthy nineteenth-century family.
The Schermerhorn shoes are tiny versions of the buttoned boots favored by fashionable American women during the second half of the nineteenth century. However, that does not necessarily mean that these were intended for baby girls – even the pink pair. Until the end of the nineteenth century, American babies did not dress in gender-specific clothing. Until age two or three, children wore easily bleached white cotton dresses that could then be handed down to younger sisters or brothers. Even after manufacturers and retailers introduced pastel layettes and baby clothes, the association of pink with girls and blue with boys was not fully established until the middle of the twentieth century.
Since babies are more likely to outgrow than wear out their apparel, it is not surprising that these little shoes have survived for over a century. Indeed, they may have been deliberately preserved as sentimental family mementoes. Baby shoes were considered as such by the mid-1800s. For example, the August 1856 number of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a popular periodical, contained a short essay on “Little Shoes” which began with a quote by the best-selling novelist E. D. E. N. Southworth: “There is no part of a baby’s wardrobe so suggestive and beautiful as the little shoes.” As one might expect of a time when many babies died in infancy, the essay contained many references to bereaved mothers keeping little shoes.”
Particularly for upper- and middle-class urban families like the Schermerhorns, the nineteenth-century household was no longer the primary site of family economic production. Instead, American middle-class culture came to celebrate the home as a refuge from the competitive, rough-and-tumble world of the commercial marketplace. Within the “domestic sphere,” childhood was idealized as a time of innocence to be lovingly protected, and women were held up as “the angel in the house,” for whom soft slippers or “boudoir shoes” were suitable.
Of course, the ideology of domesticity never truly reflected most women’s experiences, and especially for immigrant women, women of color, and working women, the dissonance between ideology and reality could be jarring.
“Say, have we got any more of them 4567 French heel, chiffon rosette?”
In contrast to the middle-class domestic ideal, working-class families relied on the economic contributions of women and children in order to get by. However, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries many observers noticed that New York’s young working women seemed to favor impractically stylish high-heeled shoes. “Her very walk has a swing of mischief and defiance in it,” wrote one man of the “Bowery Gals” he saw out and about in the late 1840s – a time when cheap ready-made clothing was just beginning to democratize fashion consumption. As the nineteenth century progressed, more and more shoe-making processes were mechanized, and by the turn of the twentieth century industrial mass-production had lowered the price of shoes considerably. As historian Nan Enstad has documented, shoes with curvaceous French (or Louis) heels became popular among working women and immigrant women, for they signaled the wearer’s status as an American “lady.”
Meanwhile, white-collar jobs for women proliferated, from department-store clerks to typists, secretaries, and switchboard operators. As more and more women entered the workplace, the floor-length gowns of the late 1800s gave way to the shorter skirts and slim silhouettes of the early twentieth century, making women’s feet and legs a new focal point for chic display.
Stylish shoes could be purchased at different price points, depending on how they were constructed. For example, a cheaper version of the fashionable French heel was readily available: the “knock-on” heel had a similar shape, but was simply nailed to the shoe sole. Some observers were confused and irritated by the availability of inexpensive versions of elite fashions. Labor activist Rose Pastor recounted a conversation with one man, watching immigrant women on the Lower East Side in 1903, who complained, “If I didn’t know that all the girls here are working girls, I would think her papa was a railroad magnate who owned a few millions at the least.”
Walk This Way
We have all become accustomed to sizing people up according to what they put on their feet. As shoe designer and collector Stuart Weitzman puts it, if your date shows up wearing high-heeled, pointed-toe red patent leather pumps… she probably doesn’t want to go bowling.
Whether it’s a sparkling pair of beaded heels or a sensible buttoned boot, it’s clear that shoes don’t have to belong to a famous person or be linked to a particular event in order to tell us something about women’s history. We invite you to join us at New-York Historical Society for Walk This Way: Footwear from the Stuart Weitzman Collection of Historic Shoes in order to hear these untold stories.
– Jeanne Gutierrez, Center for Women’s History
Top image credits: Pumps with knock-on heels, ca. 1915 & pumps with French heels, ca. 1915. Stuart Weitzman Collection. Photo by Glenn Castellano.