During the lean years of World War II, the materials essential to the cobbler’s art—leather, steel, and rubber—were hard to come by. These shortages inspired Italian designer Salvatore Ferragamo to experiment with new materials for his shoes, testing out uppers made from twisted paper cord and packing string. Replacing the standard steel arch support was tougher, but Ferragamo eventually drew from the classic sandals of ancient Greece, fitting the sole with cork instead of steel. By the mid-1940s, cork-bottomed wedges were one of the most popular shoe styles in America.
Following the war’s end, manufacturing restrictions were suddenly lifted, and in a rejection of the blurred gender roles of the war years, women’s shoes became excessively feminine, incorporating higher heels and exciting new materials. Sandals with Perspex acrylic straps and Lucite heels recalled Cinderella’s glass slippers, while the innovative Spring-o-lators allowed designers to do away with back straps by using an elastic bridge between the ball of the foot and the heel to keep the shoe flat against the foot.
In 1953, Roger Vivier, a designer for Christian Dior, introduced the world’s first stiletto, taking elegant, impractical footwear to a new level. Vivier experimented with heels of all shapes, from one inspired by a curving comma to another by a rose’s stem, complete with thorns, but each lifted the foot precariously off the ground.
Shoes like these no longer performed their basic protective function, but instead became an extravagant means of displaying the female form. Stilettos also telegraphed one's class, as such expensive and impractical clothing required a certain level of wealth.
High heels had their detractors, and younger women in particular went for more casual styles like classic Mary Janes and two-toned saddle shoes. Even some celebrities, like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, preferred low-heeled pumps to emphasize their more traditional, aristocratic tastes.
The countercultural Beats went even further in rejecting the stiletto, with their neutral-colored flats and simple black boots. In 1960, while working for Dior, Yves Saint Laurent introduced his “Beat Look” collection, which shocked the brand’s conservative clients and ended his stint at the company.
Despite the disapproval of affluent customers, comfortable and earthy designs like the sensible Birkenstock and leather moccasin spread throughout the 1960s as the alternative hippie movement was marketed to the mainstream. Simultaneously, the pop-art aesthetic of Mod style began to infiltrate footwear, bringing over-the-top looks like the knee-high Go Go boot...
Yet as more women entered the workforce, they wanted fashionable shoes that could be worn comfortably all day long. Chanel’s two-toned pump featuring a wider heel, first appeared in 1957 and became a staple for working women of the '70s. Ferragamo, now run by his daughter Fiamma, debuted the Vara pump, with a low, chunky heel and knotted bow over the toe.
Meanwhile, the disco-era nightlife encouraged gaudier designs, like gigantic Lucite platform heels with flashy metallic uppers. Inspired by vintage looks from the '50s and glam-rock stars of the '70s, Thea Cadabra created fantastical shoes designed to look like spaceships, ice cream cones, and palm trees. Terry de Havilland reinterpreted the platform wedge, topped with bright shades of metallic leather.
During the early 1970s, Vogue editor Diana Vreeland was the first to encourage Manolo Blahnik to pursue a career in shoes after viewing some of his theater-set sketches. Blahnik steered his initial collections away from the heavy platform styles, resulting in delicate, strappy high-heels fit for a fancy dinner or a meeting with the boss. Wealthy and powerful women adored Blahnik’s shoes, with their refined femininity and somewhat conservative style.
At the same time, the '70s saw the arrival of the athletic shoe, or sneaker, as physical fitness culture was embraced by women across the U.S. and brands like Nike, named for the Greek goddess of victory, were launched.
Moving into the '80s, the “anti-fashion” of power dressing for the office took its cues from more conservative menswear. Working women opted for plain pumps in darker neutral tones with closed toes and low heels. Meanwhile, the punk-rock crowd laced up their Dr. Martens boots, whose thick soles and tough designs were originally aimed at working class laborers. At the opposite end of the spectrum, plastic jelly shoes offered a fun and frivolous take on street style.