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.