Decades of Fabulous Footwear

THE history of shoe design for women - like that of clothing - is as a pendulum swinging back and forth between extremes: form and function, art and practicality, sex and sensibility. In ``Heavenly Soles: Extraordinary Twentieth-Century Shoes,'' Mary Trasko traces footwear styles - especially beautiful designs, which eventually were imitated and trickled down to the masses - and describes how they reflected the times. She shows how, for American and European women, shoe design was directly related to their position in society: The more equal they were to men, as during the world wars when women went to work, the more practical the shoe; the more segregated into ``feminine'' roles, the higher the heel and the glitzier the adornment.

Looking good is still more important than feeling good: According to a 1987 poll cited in the book, 45 percent of American women wear uncomfortable shoes just to be stylish; in Europe the percentage is higher.

The shoes in Trasko's book are works of art by the most creative shoe designers of the century, who handmade the shoes to fit wealthy customers - actresses, wives of American business magnates, European royalty.

What's most interesting about Trasko's book is seeing how seriously these designers took their work, and how each of the hundred or so styles stunningly pictured stands alone as a one-of-a-kind objet d'art. These shoes are the beginnings of wearable art - a phrase now so common that a shop in New York's SoHo district is named just that.

Trasko's writing is brisk and readable, and the book includes a lot of facts. It would have been even more interesting had Trasko found space for more sociological observations, and more comparisons of these high-society shoes with everyday footwear.

From 1900 to the late 1920s, the most fashionable shoes - as well as clothes - were made in Paris from the most luxurious fabrics, leathers, skins, and designs.

Beautiful, but not comfortable. Until a young Italian designer, Salvatore Ferragamo, then living in California, set out to create the first comfortable high-fashion shoe. He studied anatomy, found that the weight of the body dropped onto the arch of the foot, and inserted a steel plate for arch support. He also made toe boxes round so women had room to flex their toes.

Voil`a! Actresses flocked to his small shop; film director Cecil B. DeMille costumed several Hollywood pictures with Ferragamo footwear.

The glitzy, slender-heeled shoes of the '20s gave way to the Depression ``clodhopper'' - with its chunky heel, platform sole, and round toes. Because World War II limited leather and skins, designers used other materials: glass, cellophane, cork, bakelite, raffia, string, velvet.

But nothing could stop the frivolous French. In Paris, eclectic Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli and elegant Coco Chanel continued to feud over what women should wear: Schiaparelli, with her witty custom-made hot-pink platform sandals for day and brown leather boots fringed with real monkey fur for night, was pitted against the genteel Chanel, with her flat leather slip-ons (popular among designers today).

Even the not-so-wealthy women in occupied France clung to outrageous designs as a political statement against the Germans, who frowned upon excess. (Well, not all were so dismissing: Trasko recounts a rumor that when the Allies invaded Normandy, the staff of German general Rommel looked all over Paris to tell him the news; they finally found him in the shop of the renowned Perugia, ordering shoes for a lady friend!)

After the war, says Trasko, everything changed. Women were no longer needed in factories, and returned to the domestic sphere - to femininity. Men were in charge. Until chaos came to town with the stiletto.

Suddenly women were tottering, falling, and wiggling in the tall, skinny heels that pinched toes, made holes in floors, and were banned from public buildings and airplanes.

Heard on the street: ``The girl with low and sensible heels is likely to pay for her bed and meals.''

The purpose of the stiletto, says Trasko in the most interesting part of the book, was to bring back the feminine, which had gotten lost in the war era. ``In the fifties, as women lost power in other spheres of activity, they could slip on a pair of stiletto heels to enhance their seductiveness and feel that they still had power over men.''

This, says Trasko, subjugated women, who wore them anyway because men liked them.

Well, not all men. Preachers warned against ``juvenile shoe delinquency.'' Doctors warned against injury to feet and ankles. But designers made them - higher and narrower - and women bought them, and if that meant having to cut a few toes off, well, all's fair in love and fashion.

One wonders just how much things have changed.

As with clothing and music, shoes in the '60s were a striking break from the past. Colors got bold, fabrics grew daring (clear plastic, ``mock croc,'' patent leather), and designs came from the street. A ``youthquake'' rumbled, shortening skirts and flattening shoes, making way for the lean, leggy look that stood best in thigh-high boots or low-to-the-ground pop-art designs made to look like racing cars or flower shops.

After the quake, who can forget perhaps the most embarrassing shoe style of all: the '70s platform, with 4-to-6-inch heels, worn by both men and women? Superstars like Elton John had their platforms handmade and - not unlike the eccentric clodhoppers of the '30s - inlaid with rhinestones and glitter.

Here the book ends, with Trasko concluding that there's nothing left for designers to do; it has all been done. ``Much of what passes for innovative design today consists of an amusing heel placed on a standard shoe last... .''

Yet if the past was created by artists who took foot architecture so seriously, cannot today's artists be equally innovative?

We can only hope the future includes comfort. Because if the shoe doesn't fit, why in the world should we care if it looks good?

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