Wednesday, September 27, 2006

First Lady of Shoe Design Dies in New York

Beth Levine, who created shoes for presidents’ wives, was 91

Beth Levine, the shoe designer who created Herbert Levine shoes for first ladies and funny girls, as well as the go-go boots made for walking, died last week in New York. She was 91.

Levine designed shoes for 30 years under the label for her husband. She became known as America’s “first lady of shoe design” because her designs were worn by the American first ladies of the 1960s and 70s, Jacqueline Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson and Patricia Nixon.

She made shoes for Barbra Streisand in the Broadway play “Funny Girl” and the white stiletto boots worn by Nancy Sinatra to sing “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’.” Levine is credited with igniting the 1960s trend with her stretchy stocking styles and vinyl go-go boots. When Sinatra released her anthem of women’s empowerment in 1966, she was shown in film made for early video jukeboxes wearing the style from Herbert Levine. The song increased the demand for fashion boots so much that Saks Fifth Avenue opened a corner in its shoe department called Beth’s Bootery.

“She was among the most influential shoe designers of the century,” said Elizabeth Semmelhack, the chief curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, who included Levine in an exhibition this year called “Icons of Elegance.”

According to an obituary in The New York Times, Levine’s designs were known for their poetic whimsy: She lined a sandal with an insole of Astroturf and affixed a plastic flower to its toe straps, and she designed heels made of rolled leather or silver thread that looked like a spool. Driving shoes made to look like race cars, elaborately carved wooden blocks that looked like birds in flight and evening shoes that looked like Aladdin’s lamp were included in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1976, when she and her husband retired.

Levine was born in 1914, in Patchogue, N.Y. In the 1930s, she moved to Manhattan and found work as a shoe model, then worked her way up from a stylist to head designer for I. Miller.

After working for the Red Cross in World War II, she applied for a job in 1944 designing shoes for a shoe manufacturer and met Herbert Levine, who was running the company. They married three months later. He died in 1991.

In 1948, the couple started a business under the name Herbert Levine. She wrote, in a letter to the Bata Shoe Museum this year, “We wanted to create a shoemaking niche. We were making very pretty shoes that nobody needed, but everybody wanted.”

She was given the Coty Award in 1967, for design innovations that overcame traditional boundaries of footwear. In the 1950s, European designers had created a demand for mules, but they were difficult for women to walk in without crunching their toes to keep them on. Levine’s solution was a strip of elastic that caused the heel of the mule to flip upward as a woman walked, maintaining the tension between the ball of the foot and the heel. She called her invention the Spring-O-Later.


  1. I don't mean to be a troll, but are you the same steve swain that posts ver at Tressel's World?

  2. i don't mean to be a mule, but who would call you that? remember when september used to be a fun month? i'm out a grand between the computers and the car, and now i have to go explain to dewitte why waiterrant drives me up a wall.

    and chris isn't reading my or anybody else's shit. why does this bother me? because i'm lame.

    i guess we virgos are called upon to step up to the plate and defend ourselves in the name of dignity and ridiculously high heels.

    and bunions.

  3. Anonymous: No, that's a differnt Steve Swain. It's a fairly common name. I honestly never heard of Coach Tressel until today. I had to go look him up on the internet.

    I don't know that Steve or what he said at Tressel's World, but I do apologize for him, because he apparently is a major douche, and what he's saying is affecting what I do here.

    Heather: I don't remember what moth is supposed to be the cruelest, but this one ranks up there. Other than the low gas prices and assorted birthdays, it's been a stinker.

    It sucks when people get praise (or scorn) for stuff that they didn't do. That waiterrant apparently is the product of good buzz and bad writing, and he gets all the hits while we flounder here with almost no reponse. Over here I'm dealing with some jerk that has the same name messing with Buckeyes fans that's sending all his haters after me. That's not fair, but it's pretty common.

  4. well, he's a good writer; i just can't wrap my mind around him as a person. i keep trying; he keeps pissing me off.

    but that's the beauty of free speech: like you say, he'll continue to get massive hits and a book contract and monumental praise (wtf is wrong with being the solitary voice of discontent?) while i simply wallow in jealous obscurity, even though i occassionally bust my butt on this blog endeavor thing......

    i think april is the cruelest month. tax time!

    p.s. search engines have been our demise this month... did you read chris' post? somebody in his corporeal inner circle stumbled across his site. drama to follow? stay tuned....

  5. I know what you're saying. I'd kill to have a deal like The Sartorialist. He rose from obsucrity to the pages of Esquire seemingly overnight. It's all about having that visibility.

    I'm very, very careful about what I say on here because so many employers are using personal blogs to beat the hell out of their employees. I hope he'll be okay...

  6. Yeah, there are a ton of Steve Swains. The one that posts at Tressel's World is sort of douchy and sort of cool. I don't know what to think. The Steve Swain at this site is nerdy. Not that that is bad.

  7. Ironically, the "Hey SackFace" post was your best work yet. It was the most entertaining piece and it was well-written.

    Screw the haters!

  8. Bob: I'm not offended. Nerdy isn't exactly horrible.

    Pat: Thanks. I always seem to do my best work when pissed or stressed. :-)

  9. Sorry to hear you are having online troubles Steve--

    But...back on topic of this article-I enjoyed it ..I remember being 4 years old and wearing my red "gogo" type boots to playschool back in 1970. LOL

  10. I'll bet you thought you were pretty mod, Muddy :-)

    It's amazing how influential this woman was, and I didn't even know who she was until she passed away. That's the fame you get for being a designer for ya.