Wednesday, June 18, 2014

From Function to Fashion: Platform and Wedge Footwear of the 1930s and 1940s

By  Myriam Elyse Couturier, curatorial intern

Platform shoes were first worn as beach footwear in the 1930s as the popularity of outdoor recreation and cruise holidays was rising, and were at the height of fashionability during World War II.  At the same time, wedges - shoes where the space between the heel and sole in filled in - emerged as standard urban footwear for European and North American women.

Not unlike the modern-day commentary on platforms and wedges, their functional nature and heavy appearance were initially criticized by women and observers alike - Salvatore Ferragamo himself anticipated that his orthopedic "wedgies" would not be favorably received by his elite clientele.  Early on, Vogue magazine encouraged women to embrace the wedge's "clumsy" appearance, eventually crafting a narrative that tied the shoe to broader social issues during the war years.  Platform and wedge shoes remained ubiquitous until the late 1940s, and eventually re-emerged as one of the most recognizable styles of the 1970s.  Let's take a closer look at some of the trends that emerged for platform and wedge footwear during the 1930s and 40s.

Cork Soles

Salvatore Ferragamo is widely credited for the invention of the wedge and the popularization of the platform in the late 1930s.  Due to economic sanctions placed on Italy after Mussolini's 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, and the resulting material shortages, Ferragamo had to make innovative use of unconventional materials in his shoemaking.  Cork soles - which had been used to make towering Spanish chopines centuries earlier - allowed for high, supportive, light and comfortable shoes.  His models were widely copied by other shoemakers.

Bally, Switzerland, 1937-40

Sensible Wedges
These sensible shoes would have been appropriate for walking comfortably around the city.  The fashion press highlighted the versatility of wedges, encouraging women to wear them in a variety of settings, describing them in 1938 as "A sole for any walk in life - street, sports, evening". During the war years, American Vogue urged its readers to demonstrate their patriotism through shoe restraint and sensibility - due to material shortages - but also through the act of walking, a practice that could preserve resources and lead to better personal health.

Seymour Troy, New York, 1940-50
Wartime Materials
On November 27, 1940, the sale of leather shoes was banned in France.  Wood became a popular substitute for making soles.  American magazines such as Harper's Bazaar commented on the stylish appearance of French women during the war, highlighting their wooden platform footwear, which became a symbol of occupation and rationing.  These platform shoes were purchased by an American soldier stationed in France.

French, 1944-45

Exoticized platform footwear of the period reflected Middle Eastern, Turkish, or vaguely "Oriental" inspirations.  American Vogue promoted platform and wedge shoes in various Orientalizing motifs for domestic wear.   This silk wedge sandal is representative of the post-WWII Western interest in Asian garments (such as the Chinese qipao or cheongsam dress) following the Pacific War.

China, 1945-49
The B1 exhibition From Function to Fashion: Platform and Wedge Footwear of the 1930s and 1940s will be on display until July 6th, 2014.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Beauty of Beads

By Elizabeth Semmelhack, Senior Curator

Small, luminous and colourful, beads have been used to decorate footwear around the world for centuries. Historically beads have been crafted from a wide variety of natural sources such as pearls but even in ancient times some of the most desirable beads were made of glass. From the very beginning beads were more than simple decorative objects, they were an integral part of trade. Glass beads were a staple European trade good during the Age of Exploration and their eager embrace by people the Europeans traded with transformed the fashion across the globe. The beaded footwear from North America is a testament to this and to the versatility of beads and the inventiveness of beaders.  

Lakota, 1900. Moccasins with upper solidly beaded with white, rose and navy geometrical design on blue background. 

Among the most exquisite beaded shoes in the collection are the beaded-soled footwear made by Lakota women in the second half of the 19th century.  Not only are the uppers of these shoes fully beaded but the soles are as well leading some to suggest that they were never intended to be worn.  Some have even suggested that this type of footwear was made exclusively for funerary wear. However, every pair in our collection shows ample evidence of wear both inside the shoe and out establishing a much more celebratory function for these artifacts.  This is corroborated by late 19th century photographic evidence showing men wearing beaded-soled moccasins at important gatherings.  What is inarguable about these shoes is that they were painstakingly crafted labours of love.   Whether decorating a pair of 19th century Lakota shoes or embellishing the uppers of 18th century slippers, beads add a shimmer of colour that never fades and always fascinates.  

Here are a sample of other shoes from the BSM collection which use beads as a form of decoration.

Women’s pumps from the late 1700s are a created from a tiny beetle wing. We believe that the shoes which are made from embroidered linen were made in India and worn in England.
Boots such as these were part of the elaborately beaded and symbolically complex royal regalia that proclaimed the status of the oba or king of the Yoruba peoples.Nigeria, 1900.
Elaborately beaded shoes embellished with fresh water pearls. The peacocks on the vamps suggest that they were intended for royal wear as the peacock was an important royal symbol, and the beaded cypress trees symbolize longevity.
Persia, mid-19th century.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Walking Through Winter

By BSM Senior Curator Elizabeth Semmelhack
This winter has been one full of more than the average amount of ice and snow  here in Toronto.  However, difficult winters are nothing new. Indeed snow is a perennial challenge across the globe and navigating through it has been dealt with in ingenious ways by different cultures over the years, a fact illustrated by looking at circumpolar footwear.
The Museum has an exceptionally fine collection of artifacts from the circumpolar regions of the world.  Most of these pieces were collected by the intrepid researchers Professors Jill Oakes and Rick Riewe from the University of Manitoba. Throughout the 1980s and 90s they travelled throughout the Canadian Arctic, Alaska, across Russia, Sweden, Finland and Norway as well as Greenland doing research into the making of footwear and collecting pieces for the  Museum. 
One of the most interesting things revealed by their research was that although the circumpolar climate offers similar challenges and resource availability, the range of footwear traditionally produced in these regions is strikingly different.   Some of that difference can be found in the wide range of innovative ways of dealing with the realities of arctic living such as staying warm or having traction but most of the differences are related to cultural diverse expressions of gender and identity through dress, making it clear that form never simply follows function when it comes to dress.   

This week's #bsmshoeoftheday looked at some of the many forms of footwear that have been created to help different societies deal with ice and snow.

Made from a single piece of bent wood that is tightly laced with babiche, snowshoes spread the wearer's body weight over a large surface area, making it possible to walk across deep snow.
Snowshoes, Canada, 1850s - 1880s

Most Inuit prefer waterproof skin kamiks instead of contemporary rubberized boots because the animal skin is porous and breathable which does not allow condensation to build up and permits perspiration to escape, reducing the amount of moisture build-up inside the boots. Kamiks made by Ida Karpik from Pangnirtung, Baffin Island, Nunavet in 1987.

Japanese snowfall can average up to twenty centimetres in a winter season; this special boot was developed to deal with the accumulation. This tall boot called fumidawara is made of rice straw and is used to tread paths through the snow around the house. Japan, 1986.

Silk and mink carriage boots from the United States c.1900

Monday, January 27, 2014

Step into the Footwear of Royalty

By Senior Curator Elizabeth Semmelhack

Some of the most sumptuous footwear in the Bata Shoe Collection comes with royal pedigree.  Whether made from delicate silk or embellished with gold and precious gems the extravagance of royal footwear proclaim the privileges of wealth and power.  

Associations between footwear and royalty are long standing.  One of the most famous ancient Egyptian artifacts, The Narmer Palette from around 3100 B.C.E, depicts a barefoot pharaoh slaying an enemy of Egypt while his sandal bearer waits in the background holding his royal footwear.  Sandal bearers in ancient Egypt were part of the royal retinue and often went on to achieve high status – a practice strikingly similar to the role played by the sandal bears for the Asantehenes today in Ghana.   The sandals depicted on the Narmer Palette, are in keeping with the fashions of the day, but it is more than likely that they also would have featured some details that set them apart as royal.  Later examples of royal Egyptian footwear show ample use of gold decoration, a feature shared by royal footwear around the world as the Nizam of Hyderabad’s mojari attest. Gold has been prized by the powerful for its rarity and for its ability to never tarnish and can often be found on royal footwear. Colour has also been used in royal dress another means of conveying status.  The rulers of Byzantium for example always wore red shoes to signify their position and the French King Louis XIV famously made the wearing of red heeled footwear a prerogative of court privilege.   Sometimes colour has been used by a monarch to signify something more personal.  Queen Victoria may have worn white silk shoes in 1840 but after the death of her beloved husband Prince Albert in 1861, she wore mourning black including black footwear for the rest of her life.   From head to toe, royals have traditionally dressed to impress.

Don't forget to visit our Facebook and Twitter page for a more in depth look at each of the royal shoes from this week's #bsmshoeoftheday!

Image 1 - These bejeweled mojari are said to have been worn by the Nizam of Hyderabad, Shikander Jah (early19th century)

Image 2 - This pair was worn by the Asantehene of Kumasi and features soles in the shape of human figures.Ghana, 1930s.

Image 3  - These royal shoes are believed to date to the last Burmese dynasty, the Konbang dynasty (1755-1885)

Image 4 - These shoes, worn by Queen Victoria, are virtually identical to the ones she wore to her wedding, also date from the year of her wedding - 1840.