What do you get for the man who has everything? Stuart Weitzman's wife was fed up with buying gifts for her shoe designer husband. "After two or three ties and shirts that I ended up never wearing, my wife bought a pair of antique shoes that she thought I would like — and I did," Weitzman explains.
That jump-started a vast, personal collection of 300 pairs of shoes — more than 100 of which are now on view at the New-York Historical Society. The "Walk This Way" exhibition features centuries of fabulous footwear — Ginger Rogers' pink mules, suffragettes' serious high-buttoned boots and sexy, see-through Cinderella sandals that Weitzman designed.
There are plenty of high heels in this exhibit: spikes, stilettos, other dangerous-looking footwear. But there are flats, too — extremely flat.
A pair from 1838 looks like ballet slippers — blunt toes, white silk — but each shoe points straight ahead. There's no difference between left and right.
"It was thought to be too erotic to be able to see the delineation of the foot," curator Valerie Paley says. In other words, the instep, or the side of the toes. The shoes "have to be worn inside, on a carpet, because the soles are not very sturdy."
They're wedding slippers — designed for little more than a walk down the aisle, or for getting carried across a threshold.
Museum visitor Phyllis Odyssey has shoes she has never worn outside. A self-described shoe freak, she owns around 75 pairs. Some remain unused — but not because they're delicate.
"Actually, I have some shoes that I think are — this is really ridiculous — that are so beautiful that I never let them touch the pavement," she says. "Because I think they're just works of art. I truly do."
Weitzman believes that shoes send messages — a lesson he learned in his teens, as he arrived to pick up his date for a night of bowling.
"When I picked her up in my brother's borrowed car, she was wearing patent leather, high-heel, pointed-toe pumps," Weitzman says. "And I thought, 'Bowling? No no. She doesn't want to go bowling.' " (They did not go bowling.)
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the HBO show Sex and the City did a lot for shoes. Weitzman remembers an episode when heroine Carrie Bradshaw is mugged at gunpoint. The robber demands her bag, her watch, her ring ... and her Manolo Blahniks. "Somebody stop him — he took my strappy sandals!" she cries. A pair of shoes from that top Spanish designer can cost $1,000 or more (though Carrie says she got hers half off at a sample sale).
Centuries earlier, stylish shoes were much cheaper and often made in America. By the early 20th century, shoes were big business in the U.S.
"With the new machinery, shoemaking became the second largest U.S. industry after agriculture," Paley says.
That changed after World War II. Today's fanciest shoes come from Spain and Italy — the latter is where the most dramatic shoes at the New-York Historical Society were made.
They're a set of men's Salvatore Ferragamo loafers — black leather, with tassels — that attorney Paul Wysocki wore to work at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. He ran down 50 flights of stairs to safety that day. When he finally got home, traumatized by the horror and tragedy of the day, he threw his shoes away.
"But his wife, understanding the importance of remembering that date, picked them out of the trash," Paley says. And then she donated them to the historical society.
The exhibition "Walk This Way" runs at the New-York Historical Society through Oct. 8. That's enough time to put on a comfy pair of sensible shoes and go see Weitzman's collection in all its fabulousness and function. As Forrest Gump put it: "Mama always said there's an awful lot you can tell about a person by their shoes. Where they goin'. Where they been."