Jonathan Walford is the author of “The Seductive Shoe” and several other fashion titles. A curator and a collector, Walford owns about 700 pairs of shoes dating from the 17th century to the present, with a focus on women’s shoes from the 1920s to the 1970s. To learn more about Walford, visit www.kickshawproductions.com.
I moved to Toronto in the early 1980s because I wanted to work at the Royal Ontario Museum, which had a costume and textiles department. A job came up at the Bata Shoe Museum, so I ended up working there as the assistant curator and then as curator. Shoes were thrust upon me; they were not something I initially chose.
At Bata, I had 11 years of experience working with shoes on a daily basis. What I like about shoes, first of all, is that they’re small, so you can collect quite a few of them—they don’t take up as much room as other things. Shoes also have to be practical as well as beautiful, more so perhaps than anything else we wear.
When it comes to clothing, the only things you worry about are modesty and warmth, but when it comes to shoes, there’s a certain technological level of construction it has to have. A shoe has to provide support, it has to be comfortable, and it has to look nice. Shoes have a lot of requirements, and yet over the past centuries they have also been interesting objects of fashion.
Right now there is a move toward a very fresh, new kind of look, but some of the shoes that are being created by today’s designers are almost throwbacks to what was happening in the 16th and 17th centuries. For example, there’s an exhibition at the Bata Shoe Museum through September of 2010 on the chopines, which were elevated shoes from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. There is a Swedish example in the show from around 1540 that looks almost exactly like something Nicholas Kirkwood would’ve done last season.
I don’t know if he was looking back to the 16th century when he designed his version, but with shoes, there is a limited repertoire of what you can do. There can only be so many fresh looks.
“We think of Ferragamo as a postwar designer, but he introduced the platform shoe in the 1930s.”
For me, the most important historical development was when shoes became visible. That’s when they became interesting. When skirts were long and covered the shoes, shoes were quite boring, plain, and practical, not very interesting to look at. They tended to be black or white and heelless. But when the hemlines began to rise, they became more noticeable and therefore designers began to put more attention into their color and ornamentation.
In many ways, shoes are a fairly new element of fashion. They were kind of ignored through most of the 19th century and even into the early 20th century. But then in the 1910s and ’20s, when hemlines rocketed up, suddenly shoes became an essential part of an outfit. They had to match the gloves, the purse, the hat, or the jewelry. I think that’s one reason there’s so much interest in shoe design, because it’s contemporary in that sense. This conscious awareness of what shoes should look like has only been around for a while.
Collectors Weekly: Do you collect shoes?
Walford: I do, yes. At last count, I had around 700 pairs. I collect through every century. The oldest shoe I have is a single shoe from the 1660s that came out of an American collection. That shoe could very well have been worn in New Amsterdam (present-day New York) back in the 17th century, which would make it the oldest European-style shoe in America. I don’t have proof of that, but I’ve had several people look at it and they’ve all said it looks like something that was very typical of what you’d expect to find in Holland at the time, except it’s made out of deerskin. So it could be an American shoe made by a Dutch-trained shoemaker in New Amsterdam.
The next-oldest shoes I have are from the early 18th century, and from then on I have pretty much a solid representation of fashion footwear from the 1750s right up to the present. But the focus of the collection is from 1920s to the ’70s and ’80s.
From the ’20s alone I have shoes in different colors; shoes in tooled and appliquéd leather; shoes of painted silk and others covered with rhinestones. I think that’s in part why I tend to collect more shoes from the 1920s—there is just so much variety. If you’re collecting shoes from the 1840s, for example, you are pretty much limited to a pair of black, flat shoes and a pair of boots, and that kind of does it. Two pairs essentially cover all aspects of what was going on.
For me, the most aesthetically pleasing part of a shoe is the shaped heel, the part where there’s a gentle curve from the heel going down to the ground. I’ve never been fond of big, blocky heels or straight, sharp heels. I think they’re a little bit awkward. But that’s personal taste—everything has its own beauty.
For example, shoes in the late ’60s with the square toes and the low heels can be a little bit boring at times, but you also had some wonderful designs using amazing plastic materials, bright colors, psychedelic printed leathers, metal trimmings, and all sorts of other wonderful stuff. Every period has its strengths, so I can’t really say I like one any more than another.
Collectors Weekly: What were women wearing at the beginning of the 20th century?
Walford: This was just around the period when hemlines were beginning to creep up. Interestingly, shoes were almost a reaction to the fashions of the time. A lot of the Edwardian turn-of-the-century fashions were dripping in lace and making the most of the feminine figure, with padded buttocks, a padded bosom, and a tight waist. The look was ultra feminine. In contrast, shoes were often very masculine—little, tight Oxford shoes with low heels, very suffragette in comparison to the elaborate femininity of the costume itself. Even in eveningwear or with very fancy dresses, the footwear was still quite practical and masculine.
All that changed in the 1910s with the rise of the hem. There was the introduction of straps and color in womens footwear. Of course the leg was still not supposed to be seen in its naked form, so stockings were opaque. But the shoes themselves brought attention to the leg and the foot.
Shoe design took off in the 1920s and ’30s when bare legs and translucent stockings became acceptable. Suddenly shoes were brightly colored and highly decorated. French shoe designer André Perugia got his start in the 1920s, doing fantastical designs and colors and patterns for Paul Poiret. Roger Vivier designed shoes for Elsa Schiaparelli in the 1930s. This is when shoe design as we know it really began.
Collectors Weekly: Were shoe designers as well known or regarded in the early 1900s?
Walford: Not really. Jean-Louis François Pinet, who worked out of Paris, produced very elaborate, embroidered versions of whatever was in fashion. But he’s pretty much the only one that was known at all. Shoe manufacturing was just getting off the ground at the very end of the 19th century. It was a time when people were moving from traditional styles to a more modern type of footwear—from clogs to leather boots, for example. Generally speaking, the footwear was quite plain, and the makers and designers were not well known.
If anything, it was the manufacturers that became famous for producing quality footwear at a reasonable price. This is where the Americans excelled. The American shoe industry just exploded at the end of the 19th century. They produced massive quantities of good quality shoes, not necessarily in bright colors and wonderful designs, but quality construction at an inexpensive price.
Collectors Weekly: Who were some of the leading manufacturers?
Walford: There was a huge shoemaking industry in St. Louis, New York, and the Boston area. There was also the Krohn-Fechheimer Shoe Company of Cincinnati. Fechheimer was best known for its Red Cross brand of shoes. You can find Red Cross brand shoes right up until at least the end of the 1960s. They might even go into the 1970s. The only time you won’t find them is during the war from about 1942 to ’46.
The company came to an agreement with the Red Cross not to use that name for their shoes because they didn’t want to suggest that they were somehow associated with the Red Cross and its work during the war.
There were an amazing number of American companies. They’re mostly all gone now because they started getting a lot of competition from the Italian manufacturers in the 1950s and ’60s, the Spanish and Brazilian manufacturers in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, and the Chinese in the 1990s. The 1860s until the 1960s was the heyday of American shoe manufacturing.
Collectors Weekly: Did European designers always influence their American counterparts?
Walford: Well, from the 1860s until the 1930s, Europe was where all fashion ideas came from. Designers in the United States and Canada, the whole Western hemisphere for that matter, followed what was coming out of London or Paris or Vienna. The same was true for shoes. Even when American shoe manufacturing took off in the 19th century, producing plain, wearable-quality shoes without any outrageous colors or designs, they were still getting their design cues from Europe.
That gradually began to change in the 1930s. A few homegrown American design talents began to show up, but American retailers were leery of taking American designs. They always wanted to sell the latest fashions from Paris or London. They never wanted to say ‘buy the latest fashions by so and so from Ohio’. World War II changed that because U.S. retailers were cut off from Europe’s fashion leaders. Suddenly they had to look to the local talent, and there was a lot out there. They would even promote the names of U.S. shoe companies like Herman Delman in advertisements.
Collectors Weekly: How else did World War II affect U.S. shoes?
Walford: Actually, both world wars had an impact. From 1915 to 1918, material shortages forced European designers to replace some of the leather in their shoes with gray felt or cotton. This was especially true for boots. In World War II, again because of a lack of leather, materials such as wood and cork were used in soles instead of leather. That created the platform, which became the fashion throughout the war and even into the early 1950s.
In Europe the main problem was a lack of leather. In the States, wartime regulations also restricted the amount of dye you could use on leather, which decreased demand. In the United States, there were, I think, just five colors that were allowed between 1942 and 1945. You had white, black, brown, gray, and navy blue. That was it for a leather-soled shoe. The way to get around that was to make a textile shoe with a leather sole. You could produce a red cotton upper with a leather sole, that kind of thing, but not red leather.
Delman was just one of the U.S. firms that became famous during the 1940s. Seymour Troy was another one, and Beth Levine showed up just after the war, I think in ’48. There were a fair number of them. Fashion designers like Claire McCardell, Irene, and Adrian created the clothes that went with the Seymour Troy and Herman Delman shoes.
This U.S. moment, if you will, did not last long. After the war, the American shoe industry began to be challenged by the Italians, who had a long history of hand shoemaking. Their workers learned by the apprentice method—they could make a shoe from beginning to end. It was slow and expensive but the results were wonderful, high-quality shoes.
After the war, the Italians started to combine the best American manufacturing methods with the tradition of Italian craftsmanship. Half of the shoe would be manufactured and the other half would be hand finished. It was a brilliant concept because it combined the strength and uniformity of a manufactured shoe with fine finishing and high quality. And because labor in post-war Italy was less expensive than it was in the United States, the shoes were a lot cheaper.
That was the beginning of the end of the shoemaking industry in the States. A lot of designers in New York simply sent their manufacturing work to Italy. One New York importer, Marx & Newman, operated a string of small shoe companies on the Amalfi Coast. That became the Amalfi label, which was a very popular brand in the late 1940s.
Collectors Weekly: Skipping back to the 1920s and ’30s for a moment, what drove shoe design during those decades?
Walford: Well, the ’20s and ’30s are, for me, the golden age of shoe design. That’s when everything was new and fresh. So many things had never been done before. A designer couldn’t do wrong. There wasn’t a lot of change in the actual architecture of the shoe in the 1920s; it was more about color and decoration. By the 1930s, though, designers started playing with the actual shape of the shoe. They created sling backs and open toes and all these various new types of shoes for women that had never really been around before.
It’s also when some of the most respected designers of the 1950s and ’60s got their start. Vivier started in the 1930s but he was actually better known after the war. We think of Ferragamo as a postwar designer, but he introduced the platform shoe in the 1930s. Palter Deliso, an American company, was credited with promoting the then-scandalous open-toe sling back pump in the 1930s, but their shoes were especially popular during and after the war.
Collectors Weekly: How does the evolution of the heel fit into this?
Walford: The truly flat shoe, with no heel or just a very, very small heel, had pretty much disappeared by the end of the 19th century. By the 1890s, there was a preference for a bit of a heel, at least one-and-a-half-inches, so the heel would be above the toe. Heels got higher as shoes became more visible. So you begin to see two- and two-and-a-half-inch heels in 1915, 1920, with three-inch heels by the end of the 1920s.
High-heel pumps first appeared during the ’20s and ’30s. The stiletto heel did not come about until the late 1950s, but in the 1920s women wore what were known as Spanish heels, which were slim two-and-a-half or three-inch heels.
Roger Vivier is often credited with inventing the stiletto heel for Dior in 1954, but the idea was out there. It was in the air. Lots of designers were doing it at the same time, and the public was ready for it. It was like the mini skirt. Some designers will say they invented the mini skirt, but they’re lying. Nobody invented the mini skirt. It just happened. It all happened at once. It just caught on.
Beyond the striking look of high-heeled shoes there was an aesthetic value to it for the wearer. A high-heeled shoe makes the foot look smaller, and, of course, it also tightens a woman’s calf muscles and slims her ankle. When a woman is wearing a short skirt, her lower leg is visible, so a high heel creates a shapely calf and a narrow ankle. Aesthetically it’s a wonderful shoe to wear. Medically it’s not so great.
Collectors Weekly: What other designers were known for their high heels?
Walford: All of them. Perugia was certainly doing them. Ferragamo, too. Herman Delman was doing high heels quite early. By the time you had designers putting their names in shoes, the high heel was firmly established.
Collectors Weekly: From a collector’s standpoint, what are the really sought-after shoes?
Walford: For the past 20 years now, certainly in the last 10, the trend has been to collect by designer. Everyone wants the shoe that has as a name associated with it. So right now people are collecting Perugia, Ferragamo, Vivier, all these pioneers of shoe design. There hasn’t been as much appreciation for American designers unless they are big names like Beth Levine (who designed for her husband, Herbert Levine’s, label), or Seymour Troy and Palter Deliso.
Collectors Weekly: Are the 1950s still regarded as one of the most popular decades for vintage-shoe collectors?
Walford: Yes and no. I think maybe that’s passed a little bit. I think 1950s shoes were more popular as vintage purchases in the ’80s and ’90s. I prefer the ’40s myself. I would say that maybe the heel isn’t quite as popular as it was maybe five years ago, and I think the late ’70s and early ’80s are getting increased interest right now—all those Charles Jourdan disco-era shoes, Halston shoes, that kind of thing. Those have great appeal.
Collectors Weekly: What were some of the signature looks of the 1950s?
Walford: Well, everyone thinks of the stiletto heel pump. But that became popular at the end of the 1950s. Generally speaking, it was a very plain pump or sandal. The sandals were barely there—the fewer straps, the better. A lot of the evening sandals had the bare minimum number of straps to keep the shoe on the foot, and always a very high heel.
Some heels were so spiky they were actually banned from certain buildings. In Paris, for example, if you wanted to go into the Louvre, you had to wear plastic caps on the end of your heels to keep the stiletto ends from ruining the floors. I remember my mother had linoleum floor in the kitchen, and it was covered with little pockmarks. She didn’t typically wear stilettos in the kitchen, but she’d have friends over, and if she wore her heels in the kitchen to, say, make a cup of tea, the heels would leave little pockmarks in the surface. The heel concentrates the pressure.
A really high heel also puts a lot of pressure on the arch in your instep and on the ankle, so they are not really good for you. Women who wear heels often end up with spider veins and things like that. But for a short period of time, anything is fine. If you are stuck in one style for too long and don’t change it that can be bad. That’s even true for wearing sneakers all the time. You should exercise your foot by going high heel, low heel, negative heel, walking barefoot, wearing shoes. Variety is good. It exercises your foot, keeps all the muscles and bones healthy.
Heels were not the only things that got pointy. And at the beginning of the decade, the round toe became more pointed, too. A pointed toe visually elongates and narrows the foot; it makes the foot look more elegant. Well, that’s what they say. I actually prefer the round toe myself. I always thought they’re much more chic. I like the round toe, especially when they’re cut quite low, and then you have toe cleavage, which I think is very sexy.
Collectors Weekly: Have boots also gone in and out of style?
Walford: The boot went out of fashion at the end of the 1910s with the rising of the hemline. Women preferred to go to a shoe with the stocking rather than wearing a boot. There was one style that was popular in the 1920s called the Cossack boot. It was basically a pull-on boot. But those were really only popular for a short while, and women did not really wear boots again until the 1960s when mini skirts and go-go boots became popular.
Collectors Weekly: Did the mini skirt bring back the boot?
Walford: Yes. It was a very youthful, fashion-forward, modern look. Pierre Cardin actually came out with that boot in ’57 or ’58, quite early, but he didn’t pair it with the mini skirt. He paired with knee-length skirts and it looked a little awkward. It looked almost like you were wearing galoshes with a cocktail dress. It didn’t quite work. But when you put it with a mini dress, suddenly there was this expanse of leg in between the top of the boot and the bottom of the hemline. It looked very chic and modern.
The other thing that made it all work was the boot material. In the ’60s, materials like Corfam were introduced. They weren’t necessarily superior or even cheaper materials, but they suited mass manufacturing. You could work with them more easily than leather, and you could make the material at the same site as the boot, so it sped up the process and made everything more affordable.
Collectors Weekly: What replaced pointed stilettos in the 1960s?
Walford: The rejection in the 1960s of the pointed toe and the high heel marked a division between two styles of fashion happening at the same time—one embraced by youth culture and another by older women. Younger women wanted square toes and low heels. Older women continued to wear pointed toes and high heels. The divide began in the early ’60s. By 1964 you really began to notice the difference between the two styles and by the end of the decade, the square toe, low-heel shoe had become the dominant style.
Collectors Weekly: Who designed the first pair of Mary Janes?
Walford: I’m not exactly sure, but the name comes from cartoonist Richard Outcault who drew Buster Brown. Mary Jane was Buster’s sister. The Brown Shoe Company of St. Louis adopted Buster as its mascot for children’s footwear. He was introduced in 1904. In the cartoon, Mary Jane wore these flat, little-girl shoes with a single strap of the instep. That style became fashionable in the 1920s for everyday footwear and her name became associated with the shoe.
It actually wasn’t a marketing ploy on the part of Brown Shoe Company. It just happened. Until recently it’s been a very American phenomenon. Ten years ago, if you said “Mary Jane” to a Brit, they wouldn’t know what you were talking about.
Since the 1960s, there’s been a lot of looking back in fashion. In the 1960s, fashion designers were looking back to the 1920s, which was the last time women wore short skirts and shoes like Mary Janes. In the 1970s, there was a lot of interest in the 1930s and ’40s—that’s when the platform shoe came back into fashion.
By the time you got to the 1980s, designers were looking back to the 1950s, which is why the stiletto heel came back. So really, for the last 45 years, I would say, there’s been a concentrated interest in looking back to past trends in order to get ideas for current styles. Before that, fashion was always looking forward, trying to find new ways to move ahead rather than looking back.
Collectors Weekly: Have shoe colors also evolved?
Walford: I knew a woman who worked in a shoe store in the East End of London in the 1950s. She was hoping to sell lots of avocado green and pink shoes to the clients that came in the door, but the women who shopped there would buy black shoes for winter and white shoes for summer. She might be able to talk them into brown or navy blue, but that was about it.
Everyday shoes tend to remain on the plain side because they need to match. Only recently have women embraced this hodgepodge chic where you wear shoes that don’t match anything. For the most part, though, shoe fashions have always complemented dress fashions.
For example, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, burgundy was a very popular semi-neutral. So, a lot of women had burgundy shoes. In the earlier part of the ’70s, brown was the color so women had brown shoes. That was the standard color. In the ’50s, black was very popular, in no small part because of the black cocktail dresses of the time.
The 1960s brought lots of metallic colors like gold and silver to shoes, as well as all the psychedelic colors—the acid greens, the hot pinks, things like that. Shoe colors followed the fashions of the period. That isn’t to say that you couldn’t buy a pair of purple shoes in the 1950s. You could, but the selection of shoe styles would not be as great.
Collectors Weekly: Do most collectors collect to wear their vintage shoes?
Walford: That’s really difficult. There are vintage wearers and then there are wearer/collectors. I think sometimes people will start off buying vintage shoes to wear and then, later, they’ll realize that they really shouldn’t be wearing those 1940s open-toe pumps because they’re too valuable or not strong enough or whatever.
Age is the other issue with shoes. If you buy things that are old, they’re often made of fragile materials. If the shoes don’t fit you absolutely perfectly, you’re going to split them in the first wearing. So you really have to get the right fit because leather dries out and satin is thin. Some things will last but other things damage easily. Most collectors learn by trial and error. That said, certainly shoes made in the 1950s and ’60s will hold together pretty well if you take decent care of them.
I know collectors who are not wearers, but I know a lot of people who do wear vintage. I think maybe the thing with vintage is that it tends to be special wear. You might have a special pair for a special outfit, but not every day.
When I was a teenager in the ’70s, women were ransacking vintage clothing stores looking for groovy, old, pretty platforms and other things to wear every day. Wonderful stuff was being bought cheap and just worn to death. But it was plentiful, and it was a quick way to get a fun look.
Over the past 30 years, though, vintage has become more expensive and chic. Its value has gone up, and respect for it has gone up as well. So today I think wearing vintage shoes is not so common. You pull them out and you wear them to a party for two or three hours, and then you put them away for the next special occasion.
(All images in this article courtesy Jonathan Walford of Kickshaw Productions)