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

Orientalism
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.

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