A Walk Through Time

April 24th, 2021  |  Published in April 2021

When one walks through the hallowed halls of the Taft Museum of Art, you are instantly transformed to a different time. One of majesty, where stately homes set the standard, and their inhabitants acted as patrons of art and culture in their respective cities and throughout our burgeoning nation.

Fashion exhibits at the Taft have always held that same kind of feeling. One remembers especially the formerly exhibited “Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times” and “Fashion in Film at the Taft Museum of Art”, both of which led visitors through a visual journey of how the clothes we wear define us for future generations. More than just a retrospective of what was, clothing and accessories are an avenue for social change. What we wear changes depending on how the world is changing, and the world changes depending on what we wear.

It’s this symbiotic relationship, the one between fashion and activism, that was so beautifully showcased in the Taft’s newest exhibit, “Walk This Way, Footwear from the Stuart Weitzman Collection of Historic Shoes.” The curators, and their advanced More to the Story, provided wonderful additional context to the role of shoes in the suffrage movement, union activism and much more.

The exhibit was designed to highlight the various aspects and motivations behind the footwear industry: collecting, presentation, consumption, production, design and the red carpet. 

  • Collecting: Showcasing the keepsake nature of footwear, marking the important times of our lives. A pair of satin beaded bridal shoes by Dal Co’ illustrated the extraordinary craftsmanship of Italian designers.
  • Presentation: A spotlight on how the shoes we wear can define the persona we wish to portray. I enjoyed the special shoutout to the Duchess of Windsor, and her peep-toe spectator pumps, that cemented her role as one of the greatest fashion icons of the modern era.
  • Consumption: The shopping preferences of American consumers continue to evolve with the passing eras. The green and purple velvet slingback evening shoes from Bergdorf Goodman reminds visitors of the role department stores played in the evolution of style.
  • Production: The curators highlighted the role of women in the production process, and how that has grown. This section of the exhibit specifically highlighted showcased the well-known Cincinnati companies that lead the industry until the mid-1980s.
  • Design: A look at the inspiration of shoe designers. Beth Levine’s Kabuki platform shoes were extraordinarily innovative, with the designer clearly taking inspiration from the Japanese theatrical performance.
  • Red Carpet: These days, most of the major fashion moments in footwear happen on the red carpet as it gives designers an opportunity to display their greatest creations to the most-watched audiences.

One might have mistaken this exhibit to merely be a look at the designs of Weitzman himself, but only a limited amount of his creations were on display (not to fear, the “Million dollar sandal” was showcased its full glory in the Red Carpet section). In fact, it was the work of Mr. Weitzman’s father, Seymour, that was a welcome surprise to the collection.

Also, an interesting item to consider from a curation standpoint was the flow of the room. The floorplan was designed so that pieces were displayed on both sides of the room and visitors walked in the middle, around corners to view more. From someone who appreciates symmetry and rules, it was unclear at times which side the exhibit should be viewed first when entering through the main doors. I wonder if something was lost from the curator’s intention if not viewed in the exact intended order or if it was designed to be a free-walking space for visitors.

Another item of interest, one that must be given credit to a fellow traveler on this journey, was that the vast majority of the shoes were heels in some capacity. Whether they be stilettos, Cuban heels or platforms, there was a very limited number of flats on display. I suspect this may have more to do with the standards of beauty imposed on women over the past century, rather than a deliberate misrepresentation from the collection. Either way, something to ponder.

To read more about the pieces in the collection, check out Karen S. Chambers’ review here.

As a welcome compliment to the engaging show at the Taft, the curators at Cincinnati Art Museum are also showing a companion exhibit, entitled “Stepping in Style: Evening Shoes of the 1950s.” Much smaller than the Taft’s exhibit, located in CAM’s Gallery 213, it was a welcome opportunity to see more footwear focused specifically on the 1950s. The small, intimate space can easily be overlooked, and is truthfully a bit hard to find, but its hallway-like feel allows visitors to take a journey with the pieces on display.

With its introductory description, the exhibit asked visitors to imagine themselves shopping for a dress and then searching for that perfect footwear to match. It was an interesting added element of interactivity, to be asked questions at the beginning to help frame what pieces will be on display and which you will gravitate to.

Having recently visited the Taft, many of the designer names on display were recognizable, and it was nice to have the added knowledge gained from the Taft exhibit to elevate the experience of CAM’s showcase. A stand-out pair was the pink evening pumps from I. Miller & Sons, Inc. with gold metallic thread embroidered like medallions on a necklace. Having read the story of I. Miller & Sons, Inc. at the earlier exhibit, my focus was on the design details of the actual piece vs. the just the story of the designer.

Many of the shoes exhibited also had a Cincinnati connection to them as well. Two special highlights had connections to not only the Queen City, but to the man whose designs defined the 1950s: Mr. Christian Dior. There were the ruby red Fenton Footwear evening pumps worn by Neddie Mae Elkus that matched her cherished Christian Dior dress. And, not to be outdone, the emerald green evening pumps owned by Marilyn Maxwell, a “Cincinnati woman of style”, said to have been paired with her green silk Christian Dior evening ensemble. That same Dior gown is also a part of CAM’s fashion archives.

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Overall, this walk through time, and through Cincinnati, was most enjoyable. It makes one think about what our clothes and footwear will say to those looking back at us in 100 years. Will athleisure and comfortable shoes be the wave of the future as it’s now become a staple uniform for most of us living in isolation over the course of the last year? Or will the leggings and sneakers of 2020 give way to a roaring twenties-type frivolity in 2021 where flappers shoes are back in fashion? Only time, and footwear, will tell.

–Jennifer Perusek

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