Veni, Vidi, Vici: Walk This Way at The Taft Museum
I’m fascinated by shoes. Whether we’re talking sneakers or stiletto heels, the kind of shoe you wear shows how you move through the world. Materials and styles convey the wearer’s wealth, taste, and role in society. The shoes in this show are functional, elegant, innovative, and fantastical. I asked Joan Hendricks, Chief Registrar and Collections Manager which shoe she thought would be the craziest to wear.
Hendricks says, “Ooh, that’s a good question. I would say, for me, it’s this shoe which is the, whew, let’s see if I can say that, “Veni, Vidi, Vici, I Came, I Saw, I Conquered”, 2018. The shoe is made in a very unusual way. When I look at that shoe, I don’t really think shoe, I think sculpture.“
The shoe has no heel, so instead the wearer has to balance forward on a high platform under the ball of the foot.
Hendricks says, “The straps to hold it onto your foot are like woven golden ropes, and then there’s another ankle strap that’s got like a lock, I don’t see a key, it maybe has just the lock.”
The distinctive shoe also makes a statement. It was designed by high school student Alivia Matthews, winner of the Socially Conscious Fashion prize awarded by shoe designer Stuart Weitzman. In her statement, Matthews says, “This shoe communicates the story of the African American struggle. Despite being bound by rope and shackles, they fought back for centuries.”
And there are many more stories told in the show. There’s a shoe worn by a girlfriend of Joe DiMaggio signed by the entire New York Yankees baseball team. There’s a delicate pair designed for film icon Sophia Loren, and a prima ballerina’s pointe shoes, used for her final performance, with toes worn down to nubs.
Women wore shoes and they made them. They worked in their homes from the early 1800’s and in factories into the mid 1900’s, even in Cincinnati, which had a booming shoe industry for a time. Assistant Curator Ann Glasscock says that when women later became designers, some very visible changes resulted.
She says, “We have a couple of shoes by Beth Levine that are see-through, you can see every part of the foot, if you think back to the late nineteenth century even seeing the ankle could be scandalous, so in these shoes you really kind of bare all. “
The shoes, called “Girl Crazy Pumps” from the 1960’s are made of clear vinyl with a Lucite heel and are very much in step with the blossoming women’s liberation movement. Beth Levine, known as the “first lady of shoe design”, also made the white go-go boots that Nancy Sinatra wears on the cover of her album with the hit song “These Boots are Made for Walkin’”. And while we’re talking boots….
Glasscock says, “Another great pair of shoes that has a great story to tell is the Kinky Boots. They are these bright red, thigh high boots that were worn by Kevin Smith Kirkwood who performed in the musical of the same name. They are incredibly beautiful, they are very sturdy, they had to withstand about eight performances a week.”
The musical came after the 2005 “Kinky Boots” film, based on the true story of a failing British shoe factory that transitions its product to making super sexy women’s styles for men who dressed in drag.
“With these we are able to tell stories about underrepresented or misrepresented people throughout history,” Glasscock says. “So I actually researched the first “Queen of Drag” in the United States, William Dorsey Swann. He was a Black man who lived in DC in the late 1800’s and he held secret drag balls and was a big pioneer of the movement, I think he really anticipated some of the future activism that would happen within the LGBTQ community. “
When shoes are presented as art, we get to see up close how concept, style and craftsmanship so beautifully combine to meet our basic needs of form and function.
The exhibit Walk This Way is at the Taft Museum until June 6th. For more information visit www.taftmuseum.org.
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Culture Couch is created at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.
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