The Michener Museum traces American history through shoes

What can we learn about America by looking at our shoes?

Particularly women’s shoes: Mary Janes, T-straps, stilettos, peep-toes, laces, sling-backs, sandals, boudoir slippers. More than 100 pairs of shoes spanning the past 184 years are on display at the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

“Shoes can tell us a lot about identity, social history, political history and women’s history,” said chief curator Laura Turner Igoe. “They are also beautiful and fabulous objects. They can tell us a lot about design and craftsmanship in this country.

Laura Turner Igoe, chief curator of the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, discovers her favorite pair of shoes in the exhibition “Walk This Way; Shoes from the Stuart Weitzman collection. Weitzman designed the Diamanté pumps inspired by the Chrysler Building. (Emma Lee/WHY)

The shoes come from the collection of Stuart Weitzman, the famous shoe designer who became a major philanthropist in Philadelphia. Three buildings bear his name: the National Museum of American Jewish History, the School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania, and the future annex of the Annenberg Center for Performing Arts at Penn.

Weitzman is based in Connecticut and an alumnus of Penn’s Wharton School of Business. “Walk This Way” was originally organized by the New-York Historical Society. This show at the Michener is in its second edition.

A glass display case holds a pair of red lace-up boots next to a sign with words on it.
Red patent leather boots designed by Gregg Barnes were used in the Broadway musical “Kinky Boots.” (Emma Lee/WHY)

Weitzman started collecting decades ago at the request of his wife, Jane Gershon Weitzman, when she started gifting him some interesting shoes.

“What do you give a partner over time, you know?” said Igoe. “She decided that shoes, historic shoes, would be the way to go. She selected shoes that are either really unusual or exciting in their design.

A row of decorative heels, without the rest of the shoe, are shown.
Decorative heels from the late 1920s feature rhinestones in bold geometric patterns. (Emma Lee/WHY)

The oldest pair of shoes dates from 1838, a pair of silk wedding slippers. Who made them and who married there is unknown. An attentive visitor may notice that there is no distinction between left and right. Both shoes in the pair have the exact same shape, disregarding the arch of the foot.

The most recent shoes include Weitzman’s ostentatious Million Dollar Shoes, a glamorous pair of high-heeled sandals set with 464 real diamonds, made for actress Laura Harring for the 2002 Oscars. Weitzman later created a version for the market detail set with crystals instead of diamonds, which Michener visitors will see.

A pair of decorated sandals are in a shop window.
The original Million Dollar sandals designed by Stuart Weitzman were embellished with 464 Kwiat diamonds and were worn by actress Elena Harring at the 2002 Academy Awards. This reproduction uses more affordable Swarovski crystals. (Emma Lee/WHY)

Between these historical bookends reveal the development of American women’s footwear, which follows the evolution of the American woman, herself.

In the early 20th century, during a campaign for suffrage and the right to vote, the hems of skirts rose from the floor to above the ankle, making it easier both to walk down the street and, later, to dancing in clandestine bars. Shoes have become more visible and their style more important.


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