You’ve heard of Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin, Salvatore Ferragamo and Stuart Weitzman. Dedicated collectors hoard their Terry de Havillands, Andrea Pfisters and Roger Viviers. And the true fetishists among you might curl up at night with a coveted pair of Andree Perugias, Seymour Troys or Herman Delmas. Sure, all these guys are great, but do you know Mrs. Beth Levine? The woman now coined “the first lady of shoes” was one of the most successful shoe designers in the United States from the 1940s into the 1970s, she was the first woman to break the glass ceiling of major shoe houses, pretty much every celebrity and society maven wore her wares and she died somewhat recently, on this day in 2006. So why are Beth Levine shoes so off the radar? For one thing, she designed under her husband’s name, Herbert Levine, knowing that at the time no buyers would trust a shoe made by a woman. Secondly, when she retired in 1976, her business closed for good, which has proved to be a kind of death knell for collective memory when it comes to fashion designers. And finally, the first examination of her work, Beth Levine Shoes by Helene Verin, was published just last year.
But attention is growing, mainly thanks to a solo exhibition of her work launched earlier this year, first at the Bellevue Arts Museum in Washington state and then the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. Since her death, collectors have jumped on the Levine bandwagon, and her shoes, which in their day sold by the hundreds of thousands, are now nearly impossible to come by and auction prices for them have skyrocketed. But that is how it should be, because this woman was a freaking shoe genius.
Take her go-go boot of the 1960s. André Courrèges gets a lot of credit for the white vinyl boot that, along with a Mary Quant miniskirt, stands as the sartorial icon of swinging Sixties London. Well, Levine is the designer who first introduced the “fashion boot” of the 1960s, even creating Nancy Sinatra’s famous boots made for walking in 1966. Her innovations began well before then, though: She popularized the mule—some would even say she invented it—designed wacky heels that rolled or came in whimsical shapes, made outrageous moon boots and invented a “topless heel” that affixed to the sole with adhesive, as well as shoe-tights, a shoe built into tights (and sometimes pants, see top photo), and stocking shoes, heels built into tights that were held in place with a garter belt (the latter definitely need to be reintroduced).
During her career, Levine closely collaborated with a number of top designers, such as James Galanos, Halston and Geoffrey Beene, and was the only shoe designer to win the coveted Coty Fashion Award twice, in 1967 and 1972. Her designs were instantly copied and today, most shoe designers readily acknowledge her artistry and influence. Levine’s shoes, Andre Leon Talley wrote in Vogue in 2009, “are touchstones of glamour and, ultimately, works of art.” Well put, Andre. Now how about flexing your influence and convince Manolo, Christian or Stuart to bring that moon boot back into production? —Ali Basye
OTDIF highly recommends reading Beth Levine Shoes. The pictures alone are phenomenal.
Photographs are all courtesy of Bellevue Arts Museum and Bata Shoe Museum, except the lower-right portrait of Beth Levine by Bruce Weber, and the shot of two shoes and a purse, found on needle+thread. Top: Patchwork boot-pants. Middle, from left: 1964 full-body shoe stocking; 1971 “Butterfly Boot”; “Driving Shoe.” Bottom, clockwise from top left: 1970 “Summer Boot,” two gorgeous silk heels, Beth Levine herself, “Garden Sandal.”