A review of a Bellevue Arts Museum exhibition of shoes by Beth Levine (1914-2006). The daughter of a Long Island dairy farmer, Levine is one of those why-have-I-never-heard-of-her-before discoveries: She was one of the most influential and successful shoe designers of the 20th century, and one of the first successful females in the field.
At the new show at Bellevue Arts Museum, “Beth Levine: First Lady of Shoes,” every shoe tells a story.
A simple, elegant black satin pump has a burst of multicolored rhinestones at its tip, as if the wearer dipped a toe into a rainbow stream. A host of blue, yellow and orange butterflies seem to flutter across a cream-colored linen boot. Across the room, a tiny bow slyly winks from the slingback strap of a black leather pump, the whole sparkling with toe-to-heel rhinestones. And from the toe of a wine-red pump, a cluster of grapes nestles unexpectedly, like it dropped in from an obliging vine.
Levine (1914-2006), the daughter of a Long Island dairy farmer, is one of those why-have-I-never-heard-of-her-before discoveries: She was one of the most influential and successful shoe designers of the 20th century, and the first successful female in the field.
She is credited with introducing boots as fashion footwear rather than inclement-weather gear. (It was Levine who made Nancy Sinatra’s iconic white go-go boots — the ones that were made for walking.) She designed numerous innovations to make women’s shoes more comfortable and wearable: the “Spring-o-lator” (an elastic strap attached to the sole of a backless shoe, which made it much easier to keep on); a new method of creating stronger yet thinner stiletto heels; an aerodynamic “Kabuki” shoe that looked as if it were floating above its platform; “stocking shoes,” which combined shoes and tights for one long, unbroken line.
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These shoes did not bear her name, but that of her husband and business partner, Herbert: When the couple formed their shoe company in 1950, the climate was such that the Levines felt it should have a man’s name. But now, as this exhibit (originally organized by the Dutch Leather and Shoe Museum) makes its U.S. debut, Beth’s name can finally take center stage, if not center sole.
So, how does a farmer’s daughter get her start in the shoe business? In Levine’s case, it was through her feet — her perfect sample-sized feet (a tiny 4B). As a young woman newly arrived in Manhattan in 1938, she took a job as a secretary/shoe model at an upscale footwear manufacturer, and used the opportunity to learn about how shoes were made and how they might be made more comfortable. Helene Verin, author of the book “Beth Levine Shoes” and co-curator of the exhibit with Inge Specht, wrote that “Beth regarded her feet as a tool, much as hands are to a potter.”
Making her way through several positions at shoe companies (with a break during the war to work for the Red Cross), Levine studied every aspect of the business from manufacturing to marketing, developing her ideas for how a shoe might combine glamour, whimsy and comfort. In 1946, she met and married Herbert, a businessman from the Bronx who had been working in advertising but longed to make a tangible product. Frustrated by the creative limitations imposed on the shoe business at the time, the Levines opened their own factory in 1950, staffed with skilled craftsmen. She was the designer and shoe model; he was the marketer and salesman. Their first collection had one item: the “Femme Fatale,” a graceful ankle-strap with a deep-V vamp and a trademark, delicately round buckle. That shoe, revised in many colors and fabrics over the years, became a best-seller.
Herbert Levine Inc. was in business for a quarter century, and Beth’s shoes were worn by Hollywood stars (Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich and Cher were among the company’s many celebrity customers) and First Ladies (thus earning her nickname “First Lady of Shoes”), in the movies (“The Great Gatsby”), on stage (the original Broadway version of “Company”) and on fashionable American women everywhere. The company became, in Verin’s words, “an avant-garde laboratory of invention and quality shoe making.”
Some of these inventions are on view in the BAM exhibit, which includes more than 100 shoes and boots as well as related ephemera: newspaper/magazine ads; marketing items (including a card included in the boxes with Levine’s boots, gently warning purchasers that these are fashion shoes and not rainwear); photographs. Many of the shoes come from Verin’s extensive collection; others are from the Dutch Leather and Shoe Museum or other private collectors (including inventor Sara Little, a Seattle resident and longtime friend of Levine’s).
On one wall hangs a pair of stretch boots that come nearly to the waist; they were sold with a matching black garter belt. Clear shoes made of vinyl (one simple pump is called the “Cinderella”) are on display; Levine praised them as perfect for travel, as a woman didn’t need to worry about matching her shoes to her outfit. Those sparkling pumps were the result of a new technique developed for hand-gluing rhinestones in such a way that they wouldn’t fall off: Liza Minnelli, in 1967, ordered a red pair in homage to her mother Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz.”
A racing-car shoe, with silvery “wheels” at the heel and toe and a clear, windshieldlike vamp, was designed for the wife of an Indy 500 driver but later became a popular shoe in the collection.
And the unique “No-Shoe” was the first topless shoe, sold complete with a bottle of adhesive to keep it secure on the foot.
Walking through the exhibit and seeing the shoes, arranged like delicious morsels in whimsically themed groupings (such as “Flora and Fauna” or “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”), makes you want to stick your feet in the art — a rare experience in a museum. And it makes you wonder why more of us don’t know Beth Levine’s name, or her story. She is, says Manolo Blahnik in Verin’s book, “to shoes what Eames is to furniture” — and her irresistible shoes radiate creativity and joy.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org