Interview With the Curator

Manolo says, the Manolo’s friends at the Collector’s Weekly (which earlier this year published the remarkable interview with the shoe collector John Walford) have returned with the excellent interview with Elizabeth Semmelhack, one of the curators at the magnificent Bata Shoe Museum and author of the book Heights of Fashion: A History of the Elevated Shoe.

There is much in this interview to both ponder and enjoy, but below are two intriguing excerpts.

Collectors Weekly: How did a pair of Manolos or Louboutins become star accessories?

Semmelhack: I don’t think that it was the designers themselves who did it as much as the culture. Clearly their shoes are lovely, but over the course of the 20th century, you have a great loss of accessories in women’s wear. I like to use the hat as an example of that. If you think about watching “I Love Lucy” on TV, so often she’s walking by a hat shop and she stops to purchase a hat. Now she’s got to hide it from Ricky because God forbid he sees it. It’s the hat that she must have, the hat, the hat, the hat. Along the same lines, we had white gloves and we had pearls and we had other similar ways of expressing status.

With the loss of iconic accessories like those, shoes carry a greater burden of meaning. We now require shoes to really, as someone said, punctuate our fashionable outfit or unfashionable outfit, whatever we’re doing. They are increasingly a way of turning a generic outfit around, and I think that’s one of the reasons why shoes have become such a focal point of culture. We can read a lot into them.

But today, where fashion has been so democratized, you can have two women of wildly different socioeconomic standings or wildly different social constructs of themselves going into the same, say, Gap store and buying the exact same pair of jeans. One might wear her jeans with a pair of Manolo Blahniks, making one statement, while the other woman puts on a pair of Keds to go watch her kids play soccer, and she makes a different statement.

The loss of the hat as the fashion accessory elevates the shoes to the place of prominence? The theory is so simple and elegant, it cannot but be true.

Here is the second excerpt, this time on the topic of clothing for the men.

Collectors Weekly: What caused men to shy away from high heels?

Semmelhack: One of the things that developed during the 1600s, and that really took hold in the 18th century, is Enlightenment thinking, which posited that men were innately rational regardless of their social stature. All men could be educated, and once a man, even a man of the lower social classes, was educated, he could participate in government, he could participate as a citizen. Some of the seeds of the American Revolution and the French Revolution were sown by this way of thinking, this idea of enfranchisement for all men.

As this philosophy evolved, a dichotomy developed—men were deemed rational and educatable; women were irrational, sentimental, and uneducatable. Dress became an expression of these two different modes of gender-specific behavior. Men began to wear more dour clothing. They gave up makeup and highly ornamented clothing and heels. Those accoutrements became signifiers of femininity—especially the high heel, since it’s an irrational form of footwear, unless you are on a horse. So it became associated with femininity, and then was eventually linked to female desirability.

There is so much here to consider that it would take many hours and words to fully digest.

Above all, however, this reminds the Manolo of one of his favorite throw-away asides in Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey-Maturin novels, from the book, The Reverse of the Medal, of the observation made on the London street in the year 1814.

[…] Jack observed with regret that the fine coloured coats of his youth were losing more and more ground to black, which, though well enough in particular cases, gave the far pavement a mourning air. To be sure, bottle-green, claret-coloured, and bright blue did appear now and then, but the far side of the street was not the flower-garden that once it had been. And pantaloons were almost universal among the young.

Exactly! Male fashions reached their peak of refinement in the final quarter of the 18th century, after the peruke had begun to disappear, but while we were still free to enjoy embroidered waistcoats, brightly colored coats, and knee-breeches. It is the most enlightened style of dress that is at once flattering, manly, and elegant.

And now you must go and read the whole interview, for it is most excellent, indeed.