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Exhibit Features 100 Years Of Shoes Women Love But Don't Always Wear

Alison Marcotte

Have you ever bought a pair of shoes that truly made you happy? Unlike jeans or a bathing suit, the one part of an outfit most women don’t dread putting on are shoes. According to a poll by ShopSmart magazine, 19 percent of women have purchased shoes to put them in a happier state of mind.  

If you want to see shoes that have been uplifting women’s moods and their physical stature over the last 10 decades, a treasure trove of heels, pumps, boots and stilettos is currently on display at the White River Valley Museum in Auburn. The Sole Obsession exhibit features more than 100 pairs of women’s dress shoes from 1910 to 2010 that are lit like movie stars and ready for their close-ups.

‘Most Of These Shoes Are Made For Dancing’

When it comes to fancy footwear, show curator Christine Palmer believes in a universal truth. 

“Women of all cultures, sizes, ages, ethnicities love and relish wearing fancy shoes,” Palmer said.

Credit Courtesy of White River Valley Museum
The Louis heel was popular during the 1910s.

On a recent day, museum director Patricia Cosgrove began a tour with a pair of dainty boots from the 1910s. The brown, black and white pair had a modest flared — or “Louis” — heel.

“I’m told that they are extremely comfortable — they come from a time when shoes were made by a cobbler out of beautiful organic materials — despite the fact they have pointy toes and narrow ankles,” Cosgrove said.

Between the 1910s and the 1920s, women's shoes reflected the big cultural changes that were taking place in America.

“Woman could go out with men outside the home. They could go on a date. You could go out and drink. You could smoke. You could swear. So they invented the ‘T-strap.’ And most of these shoes are made for dancing,” Cosgrove said.

Shoes from this era reveal much more of a woman’s feet and ankles, and come in colors like peach satin and gold. They look a lot like the shoes you see professional ballroom dancers wearing today.

Average Woman Owns 19 Pairs, Only Wears 4

Credit Alison Marcotte / KPLU
White River Valley Museum's exhibit features shoes and clothes ranging from 1910 to 2010.

Most of the footwear in the exhibit comes from the vintage shoe collections of Seattle Goodwill and Seattles Children’s Hospital. As Palmer was plucking the best examples from these collections she also dug into the facts and figures of today’s $40 billion industry.

“My research disclosed the average American woman owns 19 pairs of shoes, but only wears four of them regularly,” Palmer said. When I started this exhibit, my husband went through my closet. And he determined I have 17 pairs of shoes, so I’m a little below the average. But as usual, I only wear four.”

From The ‘Less Is More’ Peep-Toes To Big, Bold Designs

After the ‘20s, shoes lost a little luster in the ‘30s. It was the Great Depression, and there aren’t many examples from this era because women often wore out the few pairs they owned. 

The 1940s introduced the “peep-toe,” which Cosgrove calls a prime example of “less is more.”

“Suddenly the sexy little front bit of your toe could show, which, perhaps, is more sexy that showing all of your toes,” she said.   

Credit Alison Marcotte / KPLU
New shoe styles emerged in the 1960s, such as go-go boots and low-heeled sandals.

In the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, clear plastics, polyesters and other manmade materials arrived on the scene, along with an explosion of color. Then, in the 1990s and 2000s, it was if all of the styles from the previous decades were dumped into a big pot and stirred.

“You will see platform pumps similar to what my mother wore in 1944. You will see sequins similar to what flappers wore doing the Charleston in 1924. We just fell in love with everything,” Palmer enthused. 

At The Exhibit, Everyone Finds A Favorite Pair

 Everyone who comes through the exhibit is drawn to a particular pair. For Cosgrove, it’s embroidered pumps from the 1960s (think Jackie Kennedy) that are white satin with black lace covering the entire shoe.

“They are a classic pump with a 2-inch continental heal — kind of a stiletto, and they probably would make me really uncomfortable, but boy, would I feel sexy and powerful wearing those,’ she said.

Credit Alison Marcotte / KPLU
Bordeaux velvet D'Orsay shoes made in Italy. The basic design was invented by Count Alfred D'Orsay who wanted more comfortable shoes to fit his wide feet.

A popular favorite in the room is a pair of Bordeaux red velvet, low-heeled, Italian-made D’Orsay pumps.

“There is something about a D’Orsay pump. These have a low cut vamp on the front so that you see ‘toe cleavage’ (air quotes going on here). Then the cut down the side is very revealing. You see a little bit of the arch of the foot. You add those up and you have incredibly sexy shoes,” said Cosgrove, as her hand hovered over — but never touched — the shoes’ details.

This design was invented in 1838 in France at the request of Count Alfred D’Orsay, who had wide feet. The style was used by French soldiers and was eventually embraced by women.  

My eyes locked onto a newish pair of 8-inch, white rhinestone, Steve Madden platform heels. A petite bride wore them on the day she married her 6-foot-6 husband. I asked Cosgrove if they were ever worn after the wedding.

Credit Alison Marcotte / KPLU
The white Steve Madden stilettos were worn only once.

“I think not,” said Cosgrove, who appeared to flinch at the thought. “I think with these high, high shoes you are going to have to put them on, go down the elevator, get in the taxi, go to where you’re going, get dropped off at the door and sit down for dinner. That’s about it.”

So, what’s in your closet? How many shoes do you have? If the number is high, don’t feel bad. There is no need to feel any shoe shame, for you are not alone. According to Palmer’s research, 15 percent of Americans own more than 30 pairs of shoes, yet they still only wear about four. 

Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.

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