Walk This Way shoe exhibit opens at Taft Museum

Made sometime around 1930, these peep-toe ankle-strap shoes are notable for their pleated silk vamps. They are part of an exhibition called Walk This Way, opening at the Taft Museum on Feb. 27.

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.

Stuart Weitzman’s father, Seymour, designed these emerald green pointed-toe lace-up pumps sometime around 1964.

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.

The buttoned boots, made sometime in the 1870s, are among the oldest pair of shoes in the Walk This Way exhibit from the Stuart Weitzman Collection.

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.

A pair of embroidered silk boudoir made in Paris in 1867 are part of designer Stuart Weitzman’s collection of historic women’s shoes. They are included in an exhibit called Walk This Way, opening Feb. 27 at the Taft Museum of Art.

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.

These leather-and-suede Spectator Pumps were signed by members of the 1941 New York Yankees baseball team and are now part of the Stuart Weitzman Collection of historic women’s shoes.

“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.

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