Footwear and Feminism: Stuart Weitzman’s Exhibition to Debut at NYHS

by Wendy Sy Photographed by Glenn Castellano, New-York Historical Society
Monday, March 26, 2018




In the dictionary, a shoe is defined as, “a covering for the foot, typically made of leather, having a sturdy sole and not reaching above the ankle.” Stuart Weitzman didn’t merely stick to this mindset. In his 50-plus years of designing shoes, it has always been about thinking outside the box—using rare materials and atypical silhouettes to create something new, something fresh.

Of course, that starts with understanding the history of footwear. Throughout three decades, the designer and his wife Jane Gershon Weitzman have amassed a collection of antique shoes by various designers. From April 20 to October 8, you’ll have a chance to see 100 selected pairs at the New-York Historical Society (NYHS). The exhibition, Walk This Way: Footwear from the Stuart Weitzman Collection of Historic Shoes, will be located in the institution’s Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery at the Center for Women’s History.


“Shoes are lovely to look at but this collection also tells an interesting story, a gendered story, if you will,” says Valerie Paley, NYHS’s vice president, chief historian and director of the Center for Women’s History. It’s dedicated to provoke the thought of women’s role in shoemaking, focusing on the late 19th to early 20th centuries and beyond. How did culture, class and politics affect what people wore on their feet? Who were the original power players that shaped the industry? When and why do people collect footwear?

The exhibition is coordinated by Paley, along with Edward Maeder, consulting curator and Jeanne Gardner Gutierrez, curatorial scholar in women’s history. 

“If you think about it, everyone is, in many ways, a feminist,” says Paley. “We take for granted, or have taken for granted, the hard-fought battles that women have waged for in political empowerment and in the workplace. I think it’s wonderful that women are finding a voice now, without it being shrill—it’s very obvious. We are fortunate to have a purpose-built space in New York’s oldest museum to keep this dialogue going.”

Upon visiting, you’ll find a pair of 1867 silk embroidered boudoir shoes (shown at top), an early example of modest heels worn by women in the privacy of their homes. Previously, high heels were worn by men of the upper class during the seventeenth century. As noted from the book correlating with the exhibition (by Maeder, with contributions from Weitzman and Paley, published by D Giles Limited), legend has it that Princess Henrietta Anne of England mocked her husband, Monsieur Philippe, brother of King Louis XIV of France, for his short stature. Philippe responded by adding two-inch heels to his shoes, thus, spiraling the innovation into fashion.



Among the collection is a pair of silk and silk brocade lace-up boots from 1900. During this time, nearly every American shoe was created in a mechanized factory. Records show that one-third of the workers in these factories were female, when women made up less than 20 percent of the total industrial workforce. One of the most prominent women shoe designers is Beth Levine, who, in the ’50s and ‘60s, popularized the “Spring-o-lator” mules, which included an elastic insole to keep shoes from slipping off. She ran her company under the name of her husband and business partner, Herbert Levine. Who knows, perhaps it was a marketing ploy, as at the time, men were still seen as superior in the industry. Regardless, it worked—the shoes were selling.


“In today’s world, there is no door separating one type of person from another,” says Weitzman. “Our industry has amazingly talented men and women, really. I have said this many times before, in sports and fashion, the door is most wide open for anybody with ability—there are no obstacles except your ability.”

Weitzman’s collection also includes a pair of 1964 green, suede pointed-toe laced pumps by his father, Seymour Weitzman. It was manufactured at a factory in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Growing up, Stuart Weitzman didn’t originally plan on going into the shoe industry. There was, however, one moment that changed it all. While working part-time with his father, he created his first pair of shoes—a high heel, pointed toe pump with a ballerina bow—which landed in the window of I. Miller. The sales of that shoe did so well, it was reordered. “I was in the Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia, planning to conquer the world and break the bank in Wall Street,” says Weitzman. “My dad passed away that summer and I said to my brother [who worked for the family company, Mr. Seymour] maybe I’ll work with you for a year and see if I like this business.” That was it.


Later on, Weitzman opened his own company and ran it with strategic marketing. His shoes fall into the luxury category, yet many styles are sold at a significantly lower price point, made possible due to having ownership of his factories.

Then, there’s the diamond encrusted “Million Dollar Sandal” which catapulted his career to another level when it debuted on actress Laura Harring at the 2002 Academy Awards. It made headlines and sparked conversations—Stuart Weitzman became a household name.

As of last year, Weitzman retired from his company, now owned by Coach. Inspiring the future generation, he’s working with the NYHS on the Stuart Weitzman Footwear Design competition. Currently in the judging process, the competition had been open to New York metro-area high school students. There are two categories in which designs can be submitted: socially-conscious fashion or material innovation. Ten finalists will be invited to the exhibition’s VIP opening reception, where the winner will be announced.


Additionally, in the entrance gallery space, there will be an installation of artists’ “fantasy shoes” commissioned by Jane Gershon Weitzman.

A can’t-miss in Walk This Way are Weitzman’s one-of-a-kind “Cinderella” diamond and glass slippers, which were worn in the Broadway show of the same name. Inspired by the iconic character, he also created a modernized pair of heels made with vinyl, Plexiglas and crystals for actress Minnie Driver in 1998. “The Cinderella story is one of the reasons why women love shoes,” says the designer. “Before they were four-years-old, the first hero they ever met is not the prince, it’s the shoe.” He adds, “It’s a product that inspires and creates emotion.”

Delman, London, maker. Peep-toe evening shoes, ca. 1935. Leather and mesh net Stuart Weitzman Collection, No. 3.



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