Editor’s note: The following essay by Valerie Paley, Chief Historian and Director of the Center for Women’s History at New-York Historical Society, appears in Walk this Way: Footwear from the Stuart Weitzman Collection of Historic Shoes, the catalog that accompanies the exhibition of the same name. Walk this Way opens this Friday, April 20.

In 1980, the iconic entertainer Bette Midler reflected on her passion for shoes, avowing a preference for the spike-heeled variety. Back then, stilettos were not to be found everywhere, and in every price range, as would become the case a decade or two later. “I firmly believe that with the right footwear, one can rule the world,” Midler asserted. “Fortunately for the world,” she added, “I have not found the correct footwear to achieve that goal.”

As a woman in the sober profession of history and a proud (albeit height-challenged) wearer of high heels myself, I find this cheerful admission from as bold a feminist as Midler somewhat reassuring. So often, one reads of how women’s shoes can enslave instead of empower: heels, in particular, being an oppressive and uncomfortable fashion choice serving no constructive purpose other than to appeal to the baser instincts of heterosexual men. But some women would have it the other way around—that in high heels, one, indeed, can rule the world.

High Heels Rising

Everyone on the planet—with few exceptions—wears something to protect the soft skin of the foot from the hard crust of the earth. But shoes in recent years also have culturally transcended their utilitarian purpose to become an object of desire and deliberation, calling up larger, more abstract ideological considerations—like the freighted meanings of femininity, power, domination, and ambition—for both women and men alike. How did the original function of the heel—to elevate the male aristocrat—rise symbolically to such gendered heights?

To be clear, the high heel is not strictly a type of shoe—it is a form of a heel affixed to a shoe which in its most straightforward function increases physical height, while also impacting the body in other ways. High heels both elongate and draw attention to the leg. They alter pelvic movement and gait. They force the back to sway, pitching the chest forward and the buttocks backward. The implication is that women wear high heels to enhance sexual attraction and viscerally broadcast their allure and vulnerability. Teetering some five inches off the ground and taking short strides with unavoidably oscillating hips, a woman cannot walk too fast or too far in heels—catnip to a man with knight-on-a-white-horse aspirations, or less noble designs.

Shoes, nevertheless, also serve both transformative and performative purposes. Apart from completing an outfit’s “look,” footwear can help convey subtle—and not-so-subtle—messages about one’s character, or, at least, the role a wearer has decided to play at a certain moment. Whether “dressed for success,” “dressed to kill,” or “dressed down,” a woman completes the impression with what she opts to put on her feet. In her daily comings and goings, does she strut, march, stand firm, or race about? Does she want the sound of her shoes to herald her arrival prior to making an appearance, like Bette Davis, who disdained “pussyfooting”? The thought-provoking possibilities—and their implications—are endless.

Studio of Irving Browning (1895–1961). Window shopping, I. Miller, ca. 1920–38. New-York Historical Society Library

Footwear and Feminism

Nevertheless, footwear and feminism are uneasy bedfellows. In terms of clothing, perhaps only the brassiere competes with shoes for ink spilled in the discussion of patriarchal oppression. Did men have a systematic plan in mind when they designed the thoroughly impractical high-heeled shoe and then forced women to wear them, based on what they and their male brethren thought looked most titillating? Or do women break free of patriarchal control when they wear high heels, by embracing a heady mix of power, sexuality, and domination? Or, maybe, do they succumb to it?

While some fashion historians would credit the heel’s centrality in the politics of dress in relation to the early-twentieth-century debate over women’s right to vote—connecting suffering feet, ironically, with suffrage and the peculiar zeitgeists of politics and fashion, others would support the assumption that women’s selections always have had an eye on the “male gaze.” For still other observers, it’s a matter of choice: women today are presented with a wide range of styles of footwear and the free will to wear whatever they jolly well please, for their own personal reasons. Or, in the words of writer and former model Jenna Sauers in the blog Jezebel, “Feminism has less to do with what you put on your feet than what you put in your head.”

The shoe designer Stuart Weitzman comprehends this debate in his work, which, among other things, boasts several different styles of toe boxes—sometimes adapted to the same shoe—to suit women’s comfort and tastes first, not men’s. He grew up in the shoe business and embarked on a career as a designer in the 1960s, a time during which the New York Times would declare the industry “archaic” and without funds for design, research, or development. To add insult to injury, a flood of cheap imports further impaired American shoemaking in the 1970s and 1980s, causing more than half of the nation’s 1,100 plants to close. In the ensuing decades, Weitzman would belie these dreary reports by himself cultivating a keen awareness and promotion of the history and background of footwear design and manufacturing—which in 2016 constituted an American market of almost $80 billion. Indeed, the narrative of shoes—past, present, and future—is fundamental to who he is.

Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864–1952). Pasting the sole lining in children’s shoes at a shoe factory in Lynn, Massachusetts, ca. 1895. Cyanotype. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Women Producing Shoes, Women Collecting Shoes

Part of that story is the acknowledged leadership of men in an industry catering to women. There are some exceptions. Beth Levine, for example, was both the brains and the brawn behind a shoe empire named for her husband and business partner, Herbert Levine. As “America’s First Lady of Shoe Design,” she shod, among others, American first ladies, film actresses (Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl), and 1960s go-go dancers, whose boots were made for both walking and dancing. The winner of numerous design awards, she confessed that the company, however, was called Herbert Levine because “the name sounded like a shoemaker.” But its innovations, like the slingback, which helped the high-heeled slipper transition from the private boudoir to the public arena, were all hers. Beth Levine’s personal history echoes the story of many striving young women of the early twentieth century: the daughter of immigrants, she found work and independence in Manhattan in the 1930s. Beginning as a shoe model, she rose to stylist, then designer, then head designer for I. Miller, the storied American shoe company, which itself would be led by a woman, Jerry Stutz, in the 1950s.

In fact, scratch the surface, and there is more to the larger story of women and shoes than meets the eye. Aiding what Beth Levine called “the gentle craft” of shoemaking was a substantial workforce of women, engaged at sewing machines in factories throughout the United States. During the early twentieth century, when the national average of working women across all industries was just shy of 20 percent, over one-third of the shoe industry’s workforce was female. Their finished products would be shipped to department stores, themselves temples of social aspiration and feminine independence, where, beginning in the mid- to late nineteenth century, women could work as sales clerks, mingle and shop unchaperoned, and become part of a larger consumer culture. And sometimes, the force behind the retail enterprise might be an unknown female entrepreneur, like Mary Ann Cohen Magnin, who in 1877 named her fashionable women’s department store I. Magnin, after her husband, Isaac. His own particular passions happened to be socialism and philosophy—and not business—which he left up to his wife.

Indeed, as producers, consumers, and leaders, women have not been entirely passive players in the saga of shoes. It is thus fitting that the Stuart Weitzman collection of historic footwear was, in fact, assembled by a woman, Jane Gershon Weitzman, his wife. To hear the designer explain the collection’s origins, it would seem that his wife’s choices were about as politically charged as the act of buying her husband a new necktie for a special occasion. The antique and vintage shoes just simply were obtainable—at auction, on eBay, and elsewhere—and enticingly beautiful. Over time the collection would take on an encyclopedic quality, but propelled, for the most part, by aesthetic appeal.

The heels, in particular, are spectacular. Their structure and detailing, as Edward Maeder explains in this volume, were the results of myriad forces in politics, design, and technology. As the bespoke creations of a humbler era made way for the explosion of mass production in the twentieth century, shoes took on a new social significance: easily available and affordable accessories that could be counted upon as the finishing touch of an integrated, and personally defining, fashion ensemble.

Seymour Weitzman (1910–1965), designer. Pointed-toe pumps, ca. 1964, Stuart Weitzman Collection, Photo by Glenn Castellano

High Heels for All? 

Plainly, we are talking about women’s footwear here. By and large, men’s shoes, regardless of design, have a standard-issue, flat, “practical” quality predicated on comfort. It is no doubt for this reason—their “male” characteristics—that such shoes typically have been associated with power. High heels, on the other hand, in all their impractical, sexy, and uncomfortable glory, are typically associated with femininity and fantasy. Think: the glass or ruby slippers of Cinderella and Dorothy; or Hans Christian Andersen’s demonic “red shoes” (or the even more ghoulish unnatural feet that the Little Mermaid magically sprouts, causing her unspeakable, knife-like pain).

From time to time, men have tried on higher heels to see if the shoe fits, so to speak. Rock stars from David Bowie to Prince most famously have sported them. But so, too, have others. Interestingly, and “drag queens” notwithstanding, as recently as 2011 in New York, gentlemen technically could be arrested (invoking a nineteenth-century law) for wearing clothing that suggested the impersonation of a female. Yet in the early 1970s, young African American men from Harlem were credited with starting a wider shoe craze for heels among their urban confreres. The trend had little to do with trying to look taller. Nor was it a particularly gay fad, according to the Times: “Rather the shoes can give the wearer that tough swagger of the cowboy,” the article explained—the lift of cowboy boots, of course, being a tad more predictably mainstream.

And maybe it is something of that swagger that women appreciate in their stilettos. Technology of the 1950s and the ingenuity of Italian shoemakers enabled this design, which makes use of a metal stick rammed into the shoe heel to prevent breakage. This facilitated thinner, stronger, higher heels. Even forgetting the fact that stiletto is Italian for “dagger,” the sharp symbolism of weaponry, power, height, and, yes, pain, is, well, staggering. And if the imagery of a dominatrix doesn’t necessarily spring to mind, still, in the early twenty-first century, it is safe to say that the purchase, collecting, and appreciation of women’s shoes approach fetish-worthy levels.

Which brings us back to Stuart Weitzman. In the 2010s, a perfect storm of spandex technology, changing styles, social coding, and female preference prompted him to think about adapting the over-the-knee boot—long the fashion choice of women in the X-rated professions—for a more conventional consumer, by varying the customary heel and toe designs. The resulting popularity of the footwear formerly known as “hooker boots” and their growing ubiquity in polite company is testament to Weitzman’s sensibilities. Whether the idea of these boots will soon be considered as empowering to women as the combat boot remains up for debate. But in the end, to paraphrase one sage, perhaps sometimes maybe a boot is just a boot.

– Valerie Paley, Chief Historian and Director, Center for Women’s History

Top image credits: Walk this Way: Footwear from the Stuart Wetizman Collection of Historic Shoes, inside cover.