Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Shoes in The Costume Institute

Comprised of more than 5,000 examples, the permanent collection of shoes in The Costume Institute forms a large part of the department’s accessories holdings. The shoe collection includes men’s, women’s, and children’s styles from around the world made from a variety of materials and dating from the fourteenth to the twenty-first centuries. Although the makers of many examples produced prior to the nineteenth century are unknown, the shoes provide important clues to dramatic changes in fashionable dress through the centuries, documenting shifts in aesthetic taste, as well as advances in design and manufacturing techniques.

The earliest pieces in The Costume Institute’s shoe collection date from the fourteenth century, when the common materials for shoes included thick woven cloth, wool felt, and various grades of leather. Like any item of dress, shoes signaled the wearer’s status to his or her peers. Very fine quality shoes with elaborate decoration were reserved for the upper classes, as were the most extreme versions of those known as pikes or poulaines (29.158.914). With their elongated toes, these shoes affected the wearer’s ease of movement and would not have been worn by the common laborer.

Since very few early shoes survive in good condition in collections worldwide, scholars must also examine secondary sources, such as paintings, sculptures, and tapestries, to find representations of footwear from the medieval period and earlier. The number of surviving examples dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries provides a better understanding of the wide range of materials and decoration used to make and adorn shoes of that era. Embroidery and lavish trimmings can frequently be found on shoes from this period, many of which are also made of elegant textiles or fine leather (29.23.11). Many shoes were worn with decorative buckles that could be transferred from one pair to another. According to general practice, shoes in this period, as well as in earlier and later periods, were made as “straights,” or without contouring to fit the right or left foot. The wearer simply shaped the shoe to his or her foot by wearing it. Basic types of shoes began to be available ready-made from the mid-eighteenth century, although those who could afford to do so ordered custom-made shoes and boots.

Advances in mechanization and mass production during the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the United States meant that members of the growing middle class could afford to own many more and different types of garments and footwear in the nineteenth century. Riding boots, opera boots, dress pumps, walking shoes, dancing and carpet slippers are just some of the types of footwear for adults from this period that survive in The Costume Institute, along with numerous examples of boots and shoes for children (C.I.40.68.9a,b). While handmade versions of shoes or boots retained a certain cachet (C.I.53.76.25), the average shopper could outfit him or herself with shoes purchased at the growing number of department stores that opened in the nineteenth century.

In the history of footwear, the twentieth century brought creative innovations in both design and materials used to make fashionable styles. The steel-reinforced stiletto heel first appeared on shoes in the mid-twentieth century. Designers also incorporated plastics, zippers, Velcro, and high-tech fibers into their footwear, with the line between utilitarian or athletic styles and high fashion often blurred as a result (1977.333.51a,b). Shoes by designers and manufacturers such as Roger Vivier (1980.597.4), Salvatore Ferragamo, Vivienne Westwood, Herbert Levine (1973.276.29a,b), Manolo Blahnik, and Charles Jourdan can be found in The Costume Institute collection. The work of Martin Margiela, another designer represented in the collection, questions the traditional form and concept of footwear. In his minimal, deconstructed designs, some of the basic parts of the shoe are completely absent.

One extreme element in twentieth-century footwear design, the towering platform sole common in examples from Salvatore Ferragamo (1973.282.2) to John Fluevog, fits into a larger context of footwear from earlier centuries and multicultural sources. The style relates both to the chopine, an Italian fashion of the seventeenth century, and a Manchurian ladies’ slipper dating from the nineteenth century. The wide range of examples in The Costume Institute’s collection representing shoes throughout history and from around the world allow for these connections to be more clearly understood and appreciated.