The platform has had two major debuts in the world of women’s shoe fashions. The first was in the 1930s, when Italian shoe designer Salvatore Ferragamo devised his wedge heel. That shoe was born of necessity—sanctions against Mussolini’s Italy made it difficult to acquire materials. Ferragamo turned to plentiful, Sardinian cork, which he “wedged” in layers under his shoes in place of wooden heels.

The shoe was initially intended to supply the local Italian market, but influential buyers in other countries took notice. Judy Garland was one such customer—for her, Ferragamo created a platform sandal in 1938 that was marked by rounded bands of multi-colored chamois over the cork platform sole, with gold kid straps up top.

As the war approached, and while it raged, leather was in increasingly short supply. Undaunted, Ferragamo began to make the uppers of his platform shoes from raffia or even cellophane, which he dyed in a kaleidoscope of colors and then crocheted to create a rough-hewn replacement for hide.

During World War II and thereafter, platform shoes began to be featured in major U.S. department stores, from Bonwit Teller to Saks Fifth Avenue. Women liked the way the platforms echoed the shoulder pads of their jackets, as well as the extra height it gave them. They snapped up platforms with chunky heels at the back and platforms in the front in gold, red, green, and brown. Most of these platforms were secured at the ankle with a slingback strap.

Other platforms popular in the U.S. during the 1940s were more like sandals, with higher lifts in the front—2 inches was not uncommon. Many of these shoes had elaborate embroidery on their suede, snakeskin, or mesh uppers. In retrospect, some seem to hint at fashions to come. For example, the open-toe, rhinestone-studded silk and satin sandals with 5 ½-inch heels that were sold at Jay Thorpe in the ’40s would have looked perfectly at home on the dance floor during the late-70s disco craze.

The 1970s, of course, was the other defining moment for the platform and the wedge. Glam rockers and disco dancers alike used platforms to literally put themselves on pedestals. Wedge cork heels reached stiletto-worthy heights, and even Oxfords got a boost from platform soles. For a while, patent leather numbers in bright red, shimmering gold, and a range of other clown-shoe colors were all the rage. There were even wooden platforms deep enough to hide retractable roller skates.

Today, platforms and wedges are just two more arrows in the shoe designer’s quiver. For example, Christian Louboutin routinely squeezes modest, flat platforms under the toes and ball of the foot, making his 5-inch heels a bit more manageable. Platform pumps from Gina are just as daring, and in some circles even more prized...

Chanel did platforms, as did Delman, Kork-Ease, Biba, and Ralph Lauren. But the contemporary queen of the platform was Vivienne Westwood, who left the world of punk fashion to challenge women with platforms that required wearers to balance themselves as much as 8 inches off the floor. These platforms, clearly, were not for everyone, which is perhaps why the outrageous designer figured they might as well be purple, too.

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