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Fashion is an endless circle, the charming “Sole Obsession” historical shoe exhibit at White River Valley Museum reminds us, often to dizzying extent. Look, lace-up high-heeled boots from the Edwardian era — and here they are again, from 2000. Over there: ankle-strapped platform pumps from the 1940s — and again, across the room, from the 1980s. A pair of 1920s yellow satin T-strap heels, well-worn from many twirls across a ballroom floor, looks familiar; perhaps because shoes exactly like them can be spotted mid-tango on “Dancing with the Stars.”

It’s a small but thoughtful exhibit, with elegant shoes on display from every decade of the past century. (Many are from private collections or other local sources, such as the Seattle Goodwill Vintage Fashion Collection.) You learn, strolling the compact room, that historical clothing collections tend to have few 1930s shoes, as Depression-era women tended to keep their footwear until it wore out. A pair of 1936 purple suede pumps, decorated with a tiny flower appliqué, looks to have been treasured; you can imagine them being saved for a special night out.

“Sole Obsession” provides a mini-course in shoe history; showing us some innovations along the way, such as the Spring-O-Lator heel designed by Beth Levine and represented here by a pair of Cleopatra-ish 1950s metallic mules. (The “spring” was an elastic strap on the sole that kept the shoes secure; it was a popular midcentury invention.) We watch heels climbing sky-high by the 1990s and 2000s; note the re-emergence of boots as dress-up footwear midcentury; and ponder the disappearance of shoe clips (earring-like jeweled pieces to adorn plain pumps), perhaps exiled to some shoestore in the sky.

A few period-appropriate outfits and accessories are included in the exhibit, complementing the shoes. My favorite miscellaneous item: a combination shoe horn/bottle opener with a Nordstrom logo on it, dating from 1923-1937 and just the thing if you need immediate refreshment after the hard work of putting your shoes on. There’s also a “guess the decade” shoe game (I did very poorly; see opening paragraph), and a trunkful of shoes, hats and scarves to try on.

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Vintage ads, news stories and commentary paper the walls, providing context and pleasure. For example, above a stunning pair of 1980s wine-colored velvet d’orsay pumps hangs information on Count d’Orsay himself (1801-1851). I knew that a d’orsay pump is a high-heeled shoe with its sides cut low, but I didn’t know — did you? — that the busy Count, when not designing innovative shoes, was apparently involved in some sort of ménage à trois with the Earl and Countess of Blessington. (Would some BBC producer please get on this, immediately? Watch out, “Downton Abbey.”) And a long-ago article reminds us sternly that “Very cheap shoes of doubtful pedigree are enemies of the well-cared-for, smartly-turned-out foot.” Indeed.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

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