The name of the new Taft Museum exhibition, Walk This Way, sounds like the opening line of an old vaudeville gag.
It’s not, of course. But clearly, someone at the New-York Historical Society – that’s an early-American spelling of “New York” – that organized this show of historic women’s shoes from the collection of designer Stuart Weitzman, wasn’t above a little wordplay.
As witticisms go, the show's title isn’t a knee-slapper. But it’s a reminder that museum visitors can look at this exhibit in many different ways.
On the one hand, the trio of curators who coordinated the show in New York provided an abundance of historical context for each of the 100-plus pairs of shoes on display. But for those who may want to peek in on the often outlandish excesses of women’s footwear, Weitzman’s collection offers a generous dose of that, as well.
Weitzman is known as a “celebrity shoe designer,” often creating uber-glitzy, one-off shoes that stars can wear to wow the cameras at award shows.
His collection, we are told, began when his wife, philanthropist Jane Gershon Weitzman, started buying antique women’s shoes as gifts for a man who had become notoriously difficult to buy for.
To Weitzman, the shoes came to represent more than a dispassionate compendium of once-popular styles. In the exhibition’s audio guide, he goes into great detail, explaining that he finds inspiration in how well-made these mostly handcrafted shoes are.
Even the simplest of the shoes display a remarkable sense of style and craftsmanship. Some are glamorous and bejeweled, while others are decidedly understated. But over-the-top detail is everywhere you turn. There are 19th century French slippers embroidered with gold thread and Ottoman clogs inlaid with mother-of-pearl. There are delicate white leather boots with closures built around 10 pearl-like buttons and hand-beaded shoes that must have taken hundreds of hours to decorate. There are velvet-covered shoes. And brocaded shoes. There’s even a pair of brown-and-white pumps signed by 27 members of the 1941 New York Yankees.
What most of these shoes probably aren’t, though, is comfortable, Taft Museum’s assistant curator Ann Glasscock said.
“Most of these shoes were designed for effect, not comfort,” Glasscock said. “That’s kind of ironic, because as a designer Stuart Weitzman prides himself on making shoes that are comfortable to wear. It’s not just how a shoe looks that is important to him. It’s also about how it feels.”
Comfort aside, these shoes inevitably reflected the changing social and economic climate that surrounded them.
“One of the big changes we saw in women’s clothes in the early 1910s and 1920s was that hemlines started to rise,” Glasscock said.
Some people viewed it as scandalous. But fashion, as we still see today, would not be denied.
“As women’s feet and legs became more visible, the design of shoes became a higher priority. I think you see it in the shoes here – many of them become a lot more glamorous," Glasscock said.
Mind you, most of the shoes in this exhibit aren’t workaday shoes. They’re not what a woman would wear on a factory floor or in a tenement kitchen. But as movies and mass-media publications proliferated in the early part of the 20th century, it’s no coincidence that fashionable shoes became aspirational objects.
Walk This Way is not completely focused on the party shoes of the rich and famous. A small but sobering section focuses on “shoes made for enslaved people.” Likewise, the exhibit notes the rise of union labor in the shoe industry, groups that were committed to “uniform wages for the same class of work, regardless of sex.”
We see a small stamp on the sole of a beaded black shoe made in 1915. The mark denotes that the shoe was made by members of the International Boot & Shoe Workers Union. It would be five more years before women – white women – would win the right to vote. But the tiny stamp was a graphic reminder that women were no longer merely the consumers of these shoes.
Walk This Way has its star-gazing elements, too – Madonna’s sandals, shiny patent leather thigh-high stilettos for the drag queens of Broadway’s “Kinky Boots,” a pair of knock-offs of the Duchess of Windsor’s 1942 suede-and-leather pumps and more.
As for Glasscock, her favorites are a pair of heels described as “Pointed-toe Lace-up Pumps.” The uppers are emerald-green suede complemented by a small green bow at the toe.
“They were designed by Weitzman’s father, Seymour Weitzman in 1964,“ said Glasscock. “They’re elegantly proportioned. And,” she pauses for a moment to find the perfect words to describe them. “They’re just gorgeous.”
If you go
What: Walk This Way
When: Feb. 27-June 6
Where: Taft Museum of Art, 316 Pike St., Downtown
Information: 513-241-0343; taftmuseum.org/tickets