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Time Machine

My day job seems to absorb more and more of my time, leaving me with little space for side projects like this blog, but I have tried to keep in touch with the fall ready-to-wear collections, at least from the narrow focus of what use designers are making of boots this year. And there were plenty of them, from ankle to thigh-high, and from Alberto Ferritti to Zuhair Murad. There were towering mock-croc thighboots at Max Mara and seventies-style platforms at Longchamp. But the one that garnered all the attention, and not just from me, was Hedi Slimane’s collection for Celine, a time machine taking us straight back to 1977/78, with pleated, knee-length skirts, horse-bit belts, white silk blouses, blazers, capes, and culottes. There were also glossy knee-length high-heeled boots, thigh-high boots over skinny jeans, and even sheepskin lined thighboots of the sort once sported by Kate Bush. Writing for Vogue, Sarah Mower described it as typical of the bourgeois French girl’s wardrobe throughout the ’70s and ’80s, but it could equally have been seen in Britain or America at the same time. It’s exactly the relaxed, countrified look typical of the second half of the nineteen seventies, which I discussed in an earlier post, “baggy boots” and all.

In the Daily Telegraph, Hannah Rochell pointed out that this “long skirt, tall boots” look has actually been around on the posts of various social media influencers since the fall of last year, suggesting that Slimane’s work was perhaps not as newsworthy as the mainstream fashion press was suggesting, although no less desirable for that. Meanwhile, I found myself wondering when was the last time that culottes teamed with knee-length boots were popular. My guess is that it’s been a good 40 years.

Image Source:

Vogue.com

References:

Mower, Sarah. Celine Fall 2019 Ready-to-Wear Collection. Vogue.com, Mar 1, 2019

Rochell, Hannah. Why the latest Celine collection is already old news on Instagram. Daily Telegraph, Mar 7, 2019

 

RIP Kaiser Karl


Last month we lost Karl Lagerfeld, at the grand old age of 85, still going strong as a designer up to the end. Lagerfeld features heavily in Made for Walking: his 1977 collection for Chloe, which featured swashbuckling over-the-knee boots inspired by Federico Fellini’s Casanova; his 1982 collection for the same company, which combined narrow skirts with tall, low-heeled boots to create the impression that the women were wearing pants; the loose-fitting, high heeled suede boots of his 1985 Fendi collection; his iconic 1991 biker boot for Chanel. But perhaps my favorite, by far, was his 1990 haute couture collection for Chanel. In a cheeky homage to Coco Chanel’s famous dislike of knees, Lagerfeld combined massive, opulent ballgowns with thigh-high satin boots (above). He described the look as “Madonna meets Jayne Wrightsman,” in a nod to the latter’s renowned collection of decorative arts of the ancien régime. Lagerfeld was, in the words of his New York Times obituary, one of the first examples of the designer as shape shifter, “the creative force who lands at the top of a heritage brand and reinvents it by identifying its sartorial semiology and then pulls it into the present with a healthy dose of disrespect and a dollop of pop culture.”

Image Source:

References:

  • Karl Lagerfeld, Designer Who Defined Luxury Fashion, Is Dead. New York Times, Feb 19, 2019.
  • Anon. Chloeallure: Beautiful Costumes from The Dressing-Up Box. Vogue UK, Sept 1977: pp.126-129
  • Morris, Bernadine. At Lagerfeld’s Paris show, the 18th Century goes modern. New York Times, Mar 29, 1977: pg.41.
  • Morris, Bernadine. St Laurent: No Fuss, Just Style. New York Times, April 1, 1982: pg. C8.
  • Morris, Bernadine. Fall Sportswear: A Wide Range of Themes. New York Times, May 3, 1985, pB10
  • Morris, Bernadine. Paris in Perspective: Outdoors to Outrageous. New York Times, July 31, 1990: pg. B6
  • Hochswedder, Woody, Reporter’s Notebook: In Paris, Ghastly Music and Frye Boots. New York Times, Mar 21, 1991: Pg. C10

 

Rockette Man

The Holiday season is almost past, but I wanted to push out at least one short, but seasonally appropriate post to make up for the long hiatus on this blog. As you’ll have gathered by now, I’m happy to scavenge any potential source of information to unwrap the history of the fashion boot and in the run-up to Christmas I stumbled on a new one.

American readers will almost certainly be familiar with the Radio City Rockettes, a precision dance company that has been performing at the Radio City Music Hall in New York since 1932. The Radio City Christmas Spectacular is as much a part of the Holidays as Santa Claus and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.

As it happens, the Rockettes had a long tradition of celebrating the recruitment of dancers for the Christmas Show by getting them to do a kick line for the press cameras. In the past, they often did this in their street clothes, which, given the time of year, often included boots. And if you dig around on the web for a while, you can find these.

Included here are four photos from 1970, 1976, 1977, and 1978. It’s a bit of a cheat, because they’re not all from the same type of event; the ’76 picture is a press image from a tour to San Francisco, while the ’78 one is a picket line when the Rockettes were protesting the threatened closure of Radio City. But let’s ignore those inconvenient details and focus on what the photos actually show.

If you look along the kickline for 1970 it’s pretty much as you’d expect (assuming you’ve been following this blog and/or reading the book); close-fitting boots, low-heeled, some rising above the knee. The line is very long and the resolution is none too great, but I’d take a guess that about 1 in 3 of the dancers is in boots. By 1976, that number is just shy of 50%; the heels are of the higher, stacked variety and there’s now a mix of the straight-legged, “baggy” boots with the calf-hugging ones. Jump forward a year and we still have an almost 50:50 split of shoes and boots. The boots are now almost all straight legged and the heels, while still high, are beginning to acquire a taper.

But the most interesting picture is from 1978, where we have a pretty much 100% showing for boots. This is understandable, given that the photo was obviously taken during a snowstorm, but the mix of styles very definitely reflects some trends that would become important moving on into the the nineteen eighties – more calf- and ankle-length boots; a greater emphasis on loose-fitting, casual styles; and boots worn under pants.

Some of this is undoubtably the fault of the weather (check out the long, down coats, for example), but as we’ve seen in earlier posts, the late seventies saw both diversification of styles and a shift towards lower heels and shorter leg lengths. By the mid 1980s, these would completely replace the higher legged, high heeled boots of the seventies and those styles would not return to popularity for another decade.

Image Sources:

1970, 1977, 1978: Rockettes.com

1976: Coots Imagery @ ebay.com

 

The End of the Year

But not the end of the road, I hope. I haven’t managed a post for six months, largely because of having to manage a major project in my ‘day job’ as a museum curator. That will be an ongoing situation for the next few years, and makes blogging a bit of a challenge. I had almost decided to call it a day on the “Made for Walking” blog – the book is published now; it’s selling, but I did wonder – as all authors do from time to time – whether anyone really cared. And maybe it was time to cast about for a new project.

Then, a few weeks ago, I ‘outed’ myself to a couple of friends who knew nothing about this project, giving them copies of the book to read. I’d expected polite enthusiasm, but it turned out they really liked it. They had a ton of questions, all of which were excellent, and provided me with a woman’s perspectives on the topic that (with the exception of my wife) I’d been lacking. They wanted more. They were kind about my insights, but felt I should have talked to more women. One of them was so enthusiastic that she went straight home and texted me photos of all the boots in her closet. It was a fascinating conversation, and I came away stoked and energized to write more.

So thank you, Mary and Shana – I am going to blog some more, albeit sporadically. And you can expect the first of these in 2019. Happy New Year!

Beyond Belief

Sometimes you spend a while wondering whether to write a particular blog post. This is one of them. It’s darker than usual – skip it if you’re not in the mood.

I’m not generally a true crime person, but I recently finished reading “One of Your Own,” (2010), Carol Ann Lee’s biography of Myra Hindley. Her name may not be familiar to readers outside the UK, but in the 1960s Hindley and her lover, Ian Brady, committed a series of murders that shocked Britain and the world. The five victims, who ranged in age from 10 to 17 years old, were buried on moorland overlooking the city of Manchester, and so the two culprits became known as the Moors Murderers.

Hindley and Brady were sentenced to life in prison in 1966, and they spent the rest of their lives there. Had they been caught just a few years earlier, they almost certainly would have hung for their crimes, but as it happened, the bill abolishing capital punishment in the UK was passed shortly before their trial. I was born a few months after this and have no direct memory of the TV coverage, but, even decades later, my mother would shudder when she recalled the events of those years in the mid-sixties. For many people, the Moors Murders represented a loss of innocence that went hand-in-hand with the wider social changes of the time.

Some of these changes have already been discussed in this blog, and are covered in more detail in the book of Made for Walking, but by now you may be wondering what a pair of sadistic child murderers have to do with the generally sunny subject matter of this blog. The answer is that, in reading the book, I was struck by a comment made regarding Hindley. In 1963, as her relationship with Brady intensified, people who knew her began to notice a change in her appearance. The peroxide blonde hairdo, instantly recognizable from her arrest photographs, was the most obvious one. But she also adopted new styles of clothing; ditching pencil skirts and ballet pumps for short skirts, tight trousers, leather jackets. And knee-length boots.

What struck me was how many times this observation came up, in different books, and from different eye-witnesses. In one sense, it’s not surprising. One of the peculiarities of Brady and Hindley was that after the murders had taken place they would revisit the graves of their victims on the moors and pose for (seemingly innocent) photographs. Those photos became a key piece of evidence that enabled police to recover some of the victims’ bodies. And in one of the most infamous images, Hindley, holding her dog wrapped in her coat, kneels above what turned out to be the grave of 12 year-old John Kilbride. She is wearing slim-fitting trousers, tucked into low-heeled black leather knee boots.

The two murderers had developed a shared fascination with Nazis, and Brady had an obsession with the female concentration camp guard Irma Grese, who was tried and executed in 1945 for her sadistic abuse and murder of prisoners. Grese was notorious for wearing high jackboots during her time at Auschwitz, Ravensbrück, and Bergen-Belsen; Hindley took to carrying a photograph of her in her handbag, and may, bizarrely, have been trying to use Grese as some sort of ghoulish style icon to please Brady.

1963 was the year when fashion boots for women first began to attract widespread attention. So you could argue that Myra Hindley was merely reflecting the cutting edge of style at that time. But popularity in the fashion press does not necessarily equate to widespread acceptability. If you were riding the bus in the mid-1960s, it’s likely that you and most of your fellow passengers would be dressed in clothes that would not have looked out of place ten years earlier. Clearly there was something about Hindley’s dress that really bothered her contemporaries, albeit that the comments originated after her crimes were exposed. As already mentioned, the references to the boots turn up in multiple books, and from multiple sources.

In the chapter on boots in the massively encyclopedic fashion volume A Century of Shoes (1997), the claim is made that the gap in the history of the fashion boot from the Russian boots of the 1920s to the early fashion boots of the late 1950s was because tall boots became too closely associated with fascism during the 1930s and 40s. I’d always been a little skeptical about this comment, but I now wonder whether there wasn’t something in it. Hindley would have been too young to remember the war first hand, but many of her older acquaintances in Manchester were old enough that the memories were still quite fresh. Perhaps blonde hair and black leather awakened some uncomfortable chilling recollections.

References:

  • Lee, Carol Ann. 2010. One of Your Own: The Life and Death of Myra Hindley. Edinburgh, Mainstream Press.
  • Pattison, Angela, and Cawthorne, Nigel. 1997. A Century of Shoes: Icons of Style in the 20th Century. New Jersey, Chartwell Books.
  • Williams, Emlyn. 1992. Beyond Belief: A Chronicle of Murder and Its Detection. London, Pan Macmillan.

Bridal boots

From the Bata Shoe Museum “Brides in Ratiskovice, a Moravian community located in the region of Slovacko, spent long hours embroidering the outfits that they would wear on their wedding day. One of the features of this costume was a short skirt under which were worn a pair of showy boots with deeply pleated shafts and decoratively embroidered uppers. For the wedding, a gold coin was slipped into the boot as a means of ensuring future prosperity.”

Reference:

Image Sources:

  • Bata Shoe Museum
  • Pinterest

Published!

“Made for Walking” is officially published and available for sale on Amazon! You can also get a copy directly from Schiffer Publishing. Here’s a sample of what’s in store…

—————–

As she walked around the streets of Manhattan, Beth Levine had become used to the calls from passing drivers, invariably male. It was always along the same lines: they would lean out of their cars and shout something like –

Hey, where’s your horse?

The attention was not surprising, because the sight of a woman in the heart of the city wearing skirts or dresses with knee-length boots was an unusual one for the late nineteen fifties. But Levine didn’t mind. She saw it as a tribute to the boots she loved to design and wear. She was no stranger to skepticism, amusement, or in some cases outright ridicule. Levine had spent the last five years on a quest to redefine the utilitarian boot as a fashionable shoe. It was proving to be an uphill struggle. The years since the disappearance of the Russian boot in the early thirties had not been kind to the idea of a fashionable boot for women. After a brief flirtation with stylish designs, the shoe industry had concluded that the role of the boot was overwhelmingly one of protection. This was something that the rubber rain boot did much better than the leather Russian boot.

There were some short-lived attempts to revive the idea of a fashion boot. At the end of the 1930s, there was a brief revival of interest in fashionable ankle boots for women, associated with clothing that paid homage to the so-called Romantic era. They were not worn very widely, but a number of designers included them in their collections. One of the most notable examples was André Perugia, who came up with leather button boots in black or cream that are now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. But these were a rarity. For the most part, the women’s boot styles of the forties and fifties tended to be trim, ankle-length rain boots.

That had not always been the case. If you want to get a sense of what the earlier generation of rain boots for women looked like, mail order catalogs provide a useful window. The autumn/winter Kays Catalogue of 1928 shows a couple of styles of Russian boot. But by 1933, the Russian boots were gone. Instead we have two pages of rain boots. Some of these are typical Wellington boots. But the catalogue also featured “stylish” models “for city wear… extra-high shaped leg, close fitting, 1 1/2″ Cuban heels.” The leg height is 16 1/2 inches, which takes them right to the knee. And they are specifically described as “practical high-leg fashion boots (my emphasis); a similar pair came in two-tone rubber.

So while they may be absent from the high-end fashion press, mail order gives us a different picture; there were still knee-length fashion boots on sale in 1933. But by 1937, while Kays still offered one style of heeled and shaped-leg rain boot, most of the women’s boots featured in the catalogue the were regular “wellies.” And by 1960, all the boots shown were ankle length and, critically, were advertised as a practical option for bad weather. As far as the young and the stylish were concerned, they also had a significant image problem. For the teenage Lesley Hornby and her friends, growing up in the Northwest London suburb of Neasden, it was better to go through an entire winter with your legs frozen to the bone than wear boots. “Nobody wore boots,” Hornby, who was to become famous worldwide as sixties supermodel Twiggy, recalled. “Boots meant ankle boots, brown with a zip, the sort of things old ladies wore.”

To a large extent, this view was shared by the people that made them. Shoe manufacturers and retailers saw boots as a separate category of footwear from shoes, to be worn for protection from bad weather or for work. Unlike shoes, boots did not have to be fashionable, only practical. This was the world that Beth Levine set out to change.

References

  • “Hey, Where’s Your Horse?” Hartford Courant, Jun 16, 1963: Pg.7E.
  • Bergstein, Rachelle. 2012. Women from the Ankle Down. New York, Harper Perennial.
  • Verin, Helene. 2009. Beth Levine Shoes. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang

Dr. Gale


We’re now well-and-truly on the countdown to publication of the book, which is a little over a week away. You can get a copy here. As a very brief taster, I thought I’d write a quick post on the television series that gives Chapter 4 its title, Chapeau Melon et Bottes de Cuir, better known in the anglophone world as The Avengers. It ran from 1961 to 1969, and I think it’s fair to say that it is now firmly woven into the fabric of how we look back at the nineteen sixties, along with miniskirts, the Beatles, and Vietnam. When I was growing up in the seventies, any mention of the series would always elicit the comment “ah yes, kinky boots!” Today, people would append, “Emma Peel” to this. But although Emma Peel is the best known female sidekick of suave British agent John Steed, she wasn’t the one with the kinky boots. That was Dr. Cathy Gale, played by Honor Blackman.

It’s hard to overemphasize how much of a departure Gale was for television in 1962, when she first appeared in the series. She was in her early thirties, which was older than most female characters in similar detective series, had a PhD in anthropology, and had grown up in Africa. More to the point, she could fight, hand-to-hand, and shoot. She was Steed’s partner, not a decorative appendage. Her leather outfits may have had a fetishistic edge to them, but they were also eminently practical for someone who was using judo moves to throw bad guys around. And yes, she also wore boots, but they were the more masculine styles that were common in the early years of the Sixties, when fashion boots were used to challenge and contrast the hyper feminine fashions of the previous decade. The book gets into this in a lot more detail, but for now I just wanted to post this as a counterpoint to the previous post’s discussion of where movies like X-Men: First Class, get sixties fashions wrong. Yes, later in the decade there were tiny skirts and leg-hugging boots, but back in 1963 the emphasis was upturning convention. Cathy Gale led the way for the Emma Peels of later years.

All in the details

I just returned from a visit to the Motherland, where I discovered, among other things, that someone has made a musical based on ‘The Liver Birds,’ a popular BBC sitcom that ran from 1969 to 1979, although in all honesty its glory days were in the first half of the nineteen seventies. The novel aspect of the Liver Birds was that it took a popular trope of that time – young people leaving home and striking out on their own – and applied it to a pair of single women, Sandra and Beryl, sharing a flat in Liverpool. It also happens to be a goldmine for anyone interested in the fashions of the time, as the two style-conscious leads spend their time in a succession of eye-watering outfits. This is especially true in the early episodes, which feature hot-pants and boots quite heavily.

I had planned to write a whole post on the Liver Birds and what it tells us about early seventies Britain, but then I realized that it would,most likely end up sounding exactly like the post I did a few weeks back on the year 1971. So instead, I was inspired by the sheer period perfection of the above image, taken from the musical, Liver Birds Flying Home, to write an article about how TV shows and movies that are trying to capture the look of the past get the costumes, and in particular the boots, right or wrong. In doing so, I am trying my best to channel my friend Bruce, whose encyclopedic knowledge of such matters would undoubtedly result in a better post. Go take a look at his blog if you want to see what I mean.

Let’s start by going back to the year 1963, as portrayed in X-Men: First Class (2011). This one is definitely a bit of a miss. It may seem a bit picky to take issue with a movie that posits the involvement of mutants in the Cuban Missile Crisis, but the costumes – whether the mini-skirt and boots combos of Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and Moira (Rose Byrne), Angel’s (Zoe Kravitz) go-go dancer outfit, or the stocking boots worn by Emma Frost (January Jones), the fashions are a good 5-8 years off the mark. There were boots and minis around in 1963, but the skirts were longer and the boots nowhere near as tight-fitting as seen here. The early sixties fashion boots were intended to provide a relatively masculine counterpoint to the prevailing fashions of the previous decade, and were more likely to be paired with a rugged tweed suit in what was known as the ‘sportif’ look. X-Men: First Class is showing us a shorthand view of what sixties fashion is perceived to be, rather than what it actually was.

Jumping forward a few years brings us to Drugstore Cowboy (1989), Gus Van Sant’s tale of a crew of drug addicts robbing pharmacies and hospitals in the Pacific Northwest in 1971. This is a serious piece of movie making, starring Matt Dillon and featuring a cameo by William Burroughs. The two main female characters, played by Kelly Lynch and a very young Heather Graham wear pitch-perfect outfits of miniskirts and knee-length boots that are very similar to those in X-Men First Class, but are actually correct for that time. What’s particularly striking is that those fashions were not at all popular in 1989, but would become so over the next 5 years, initially in the dance clubs of the early nineties before becoming absorbed into mainstream fashion around the middle of the decade. So the costume designer for the movie, Beatrix Aruna Pastor, deserves double kudos. Plus any movie that features Desmond Dekker’s Israelites is alright by me.

Onwards to another account of the seedy underbelly of the early seventies, in this case the early history of the porn industry in New York, as shown in HBO’s drama series, The Deuce. As I mentioned a few posts back, the hot pants and boots combo quickly went from the height of fashion at the end of the sixties to an almost irreversible association with sex workers by the seventies, and this is certainly evident from The Deuce‘s depiction of Times Square, circa 1973. If you were a drug-addled hooker of this era, then cheap vinyl boots and lacing, which would be dead as a fashion doornail within a year, were  likely to be your footwear of choice. A prime example are the white lace-up boots worn by fresh-faced Lori (Emily Meade), new in town from the Midwest and looking to upgrade from streetwalker to pornstar. But the series also gets the non sex-worker fashions right, such as the boots worn by Andrea (Zoe Kazan) the estranged wife of Vincent Martino (James Franco); A beaten-up pair that probably the height of fashion a few years earlier, but now too expensive for a working-class Brooklyn girl to replace, is again a spot-on costume choice.

Staying in New York, and in 1973, we have another HBO series, Martin Scorsese’s ill-fated Vinyl, which lasted only one season before cancellation. To be honest, there’s always a risk in trying to mix fictional characters with depictions of real bands (American Dreams anyone?), especially if the bands in question are so iconic that their fictional depictions can’t help but fall short. To add to the problems, the fictional acts included the world’s least convincing punk band, the Nasty Bits, who were not only awful, but also about 3 years before their time. But it was still sad that Vinyl got cancelled, because some of the performances, notably those of Ray Romano and Bobby Canavalle, were brilliant. And on the costume front there was Juno Temple, as A&R assistant Jamie Vine, in period-appropriate platform boots. These were probably a year or two early, and also a rarity in the USA, but perhaps you’d expect that sort of cutting edge fashion from someone working in a record company in NYC. Anyway, Vinyl gets the thumbs-up for this.

Not so Rush (2013), Ron Howard’s account of the epic rivalry between Formula 1 drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda during the 1970s. On a previous iteration of this blog, I went off on the scene, set in 1974, where Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) meets his future wife Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde) for the first time. It’s 1974 and they have her in a stunning period outfit of a floppy hat and suede coat with a fur trim, befitting the fact that Miller was a bona fide seventies supermodel. The costumes were designed by Frida Giannini, who is the creative director at Gucci, and they’re based on period designs from Gucci’s archives, which is all well and good. And when Wilde’s booted legs appear over Hemsworth’s shoulders the first time they meet, all seems good. They’re kinda baggy in the leg, and ’74 is the year when these looser-fitting boots came into fashion for the first time. They’re also platforms, which is still OK – platforms were at the peak of their popularity then, and there were a few that had this looser leg. But stiletto heels? With platform soles in the first half of the 1970s? They should be stack heels. You could make a case for stilettos if this was 1978, but the boots that Wilde is wearing are pure post-millennial.

Which brings us to The Americans, the FX network’s drama about KGB deep-cover agents in America during the early 1980s. Keri Russell, who plays one of the Russian agents, gets to wear a wide variety of period outfits. A typical one from the first season (set in 1981) featured an overall silhouette, with a wide-shouldered blouse and tapered skirt, that was classically eighties. Strictly speaking, it should have been paired with pumps or ankle boots, but the costume designer, Jenny Gering, chose heeled, knee length boots. Contemporary images and mail order catalogs clearly show that the knee-length boots that are more typically associated with the late seventies remained popular through to at least 1983/84. So it would not be surprising for a woman in her early forties (the age of Russell’s character) to own at least one pair.

Image Source:

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