How did shoes become this era’s most revered accessory? That’s one of the many questions we posed to Rachelle Bergstein, the fashion aficionado turned author of Women from the Ankle Down: The Story of Shoes and How They Define Us (HarperCollins). The historical chronicle of shoes and the unwavering attention given to aesthetics footwear by legions of women throughout history made the must-read list by the New York Times for its narrative on fanatical shoe moments. Bergstein’s intellectual rigor is a pure pleasure for any serious shoe addict. Witty and clever, the book traces the origins of the heels, the women who transformed basic designs to iconic starstruck triumphs, and how the world of celebrity and fashion inspires these heeled pops of beauty and tap into the desires of everyday women. You & I.
We chatted with Bergstein, who shared some punchy and provocative insights from her engrossing survey of women, fashion, and shoes:
Who was the first woman to be officially obsessed with shoes?
I’m sure there are shoe collectors who predate Imelda Marcos but she’s by far the most famous. She owned nearly 3000 pairs of shoes — that’s extravagant even by celebrity standards!
Who invented the high heel?
Believe it or not, high heels were originally worn by men and were a utilitarian item; when riding a horse, it’s useful to wear a heel so that the feet stay secure in stirrups. The stiletto, on the other hand, is a modern design, and though no one has identified the true inventor, fashion historians have narrowed it down to Salvatore Ferragamo, Roger Viver, Andre Perugia and Beth Levine.
Why do sexy, cute, covetable shoes make women feel so complete?
That’s the million dollar question! The obvious reasons are true – shoes are beautiful; they’re little works of art you can wear; they can turn a simple outfit of jeans and a t-shirt into something much more glamorous. That said, shoes have evolved through history to communicate subtle social cues like power, sexuality and status, which I think is why they’re so popular today.
Would you say is a true shoe style icon of our generation and why?
I’d have to give it Lady Gaga or Nicki Minaj — they’re both so adventurous with fashion and are willing to wear even the most editorial, architectural styles, like Alexander McQueen’s armadillo shoes or the heeleess ones that he did, and that Giuseppe Zanotti is now doing.
What do you think will be the next crazy design /texture/element incorporated into shoes?
I think we’ll continue to see the heel itself as a focal point, with designers incorporating more sculptural elements (the way Chanel did with their rock crystal heels in the fall/winter ’12 show and Rodarte has done with their sand heels). The vamp tends to get more attention because it’s what the woman herself sees when she looks down at her shoes, but now with the flood of streetstyle photographers and blogs, we know that what’s behind matters, too!
Over the years what have been the best AND worst shoe trends?
This is clearly very subjective but the best trend, as far as I’m concerned, is ankle booties. They look great at various heights and deliver a terrific mix of fashion and (dare I say) function. Personally, my least favorite trend has to be the 5″+ platform heel that is now considered fair game even during the day. I think they’re magnificent in the right setting but wish it weren’t so hard to find 3″ heels now, which used to be considered quite high.
Has a marriage ever broken up over a wife’s addictive love (and hence spending) for shoes?
I don’t know if shoes have ever broken up a marriage but in New York City, where I live and where space is at a premium, anything is possible. The closest to this I’ve heard is the Beth Shak case; she’s a successful poker player who apparently owns 1200 pairs of designer shoes, and her ex-husband recently sued her for failing to disclose her collection in their divorce proceedings.
What is the most expensive pair of shoes you came across during your research?
Well, a pair of authentic ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz sold for $666,000 in 2000, so that has to be the most expensive shoe I wrote about. Then there’s Christian Louboutin’s limited edition “Marie Antoinette” pump, which he unveiled in 2009 at the height of the recession. It retailed for $6,295.
What are some memorable moments in shoe history that truly defined the trends that followed?
Two of my favorite stories are related to larger historical events that altered the way women looked at shoes. The first has to do with WWII: In 1943, the government placed a ration on shoes made from leather and rubber (those materials were diverted to the army) and forbid footwear manufacturers from incorporating any non-functional elements – like bows or trimmings – into their designs. Certainly, that affected the way women looked at shoes during the war and then afterwards, once the ration was lifted.
Later, in 1980 the Transport Workers Union in New York went on strike, which left the city without buses or subways for 11 days. Women who generally wore pumps to commute suddenly found themselves walking to work, and so they started wearing sneakers with their business clothes and then changing into more work-appropriate shoes once they got to their desks. Athletic shoes were becoming popular for women, and the strike only added to that momentum. After the buses and subways started running again, women still kept up the sneaker-to-pump ritual because it had become socially acceptable.
How many shoes do you own?
75 – and counting!
And, #76 from ShoeDazzle? What say you, Rachelle?