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13 Iconic Shoes That Changed America

Audrey Hepburn’s famous flats, 80s power sneakers, make-a-statement Manolos: Here, a well-heeled history of American footwear.

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Carrie Bradshaw may be the patron saint of modern-day shoe addicts, but America’s love affair with footwear dates way back, according to Rachelle Bergstein in her new book Women From the Ankle Down: The Story of Shoes and How They Define Us. With colorful anecdotes and fascinating trivia, Bergstein shows how shoe trends throughout the 20th century helped to both symbolize and shape American culture.

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Ruby Slippers

Fans of L. Frank Baum’s book The Wizard of Oz know that Dorothy’s shoes were described as silver; it was screenwriter Noel Langley who made the unilateral decision to recast them as ruby, which sounded more precious and would pop more against the yellow brick road.

After the film debuted in 1939, it launched red as the new “It” color—leading to a dozen new adjectives for the color (gunfire red, flag red, roaring red, et cetera.)

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Flats and Loafers

Audrey Hepburn’s turn in Funny Face in 1957 shined the spotlight on her black suede slip-on loafers (designed by Salvatore Ferragamo); flats soon became her signature shoe. The shoes represented the influence of beatnik styles on pop culture. “Flats became the purview of the alternative youth culture, which prided itself on rejecting the styles of the privileged mainsteam,” writes Bergstein.

The fresh-faced actress originally rejected the white socks director Stanley Donen wanted her to wear with the shoes during the film’s famous dance sequence. After she saw the movie for the first time, she sent him a note that read, “You were right about the socks. Love, Audrey.”

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Go-Go Boots

This fun shoe style has mini skirts and manufacturing changes to thank for its popularity. Before the 1960s, boots were ankle height and considered dowdy. But designers such as Britain’s Mary Quant paired mini skirts with bright, shiny boots that were an integral part of the ensemble. Another big factor here was the use of cheaper artificial leather, which created a market of “disposable fashion.” According to Bergstein, “Buyers willingly traded long-lasting, classic purchases for inexpensive, trendy items that could be worn only as long as they remained at the forefront of chic.”

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Femme Fatale Pumps

Lana Turner’s memorable entrance in white open-toe pumps (again, designed by Ferragamo) epitomizes the allure of the slinky 1940s heel. Records show actresses Shelley Winters, Marilyn Monroe, and many other American women referred to these sexy pumps with racy nicknames, underscoring their femme fatale nature.

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Casual Sneakers

The flat-shoe trend that Audrey Hepburn ushered in also paved the way for the popularity of casual sneakers like Keds, the Converse Chuck Taylor All Star, and Vans, especially with beatniks, rock-and-roll types, and the West Coast surfer dudes, respectively. By May 1962, sneaker sales jumped to 150 million pairs a year compared to 35 million pairs a year during the previous decade. Where did they get the name?

A New York advertising executive first described tennis shoes as “sneakers” because their quiet soles allowed wearers to “sneak up” on their friends, according to Bergstein.

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Cork Wedges

Ah, Ferragamo! This Italian footwear legend—who dressed some of Hollywood’s most famous feet starting in the 1920s—took a hit during World War II, when the steel needed to reinforce high heels was in short supply due to wartime manufacturing needs. Ferragamo’s breakthrough, according to Bergstein: Fill in the space between the ball and the heel with Sardinian cork! The shoes, called “lefties” or “wedgies,” became very popular in the United States, especially because they were easy to walk in, and they have come back in style again.

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Platform Shoes

Outrageous platform heels were the 1970s trademark footwear and “for the first time in the twentieth century, men’s and women’s footwear options were strikingly similar,” notes Bergstein. Many young men started experimenting with platforms, as represented by Travolta’s Tony Manero in the disco classic Saturday Night Fever. Fun fact: Barry Gibb told Saturday Night Fever producers after the film’s premiere, that the clicking of the dancers’ heels was audible over the music, but in a real disco, the music was so loud that you’d never hear it. Sound editors fixed the issue in postproduction.

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Skinny-heeled shoes (from such designers as Roger Vivier) flourished after World War II. Partly this style caught on was because the heels required metal for reinforcement, which wasn’t available until manufacturing needs eased up; partly it was because women were ready to embrace femininity again after toiling as Rosie the Riveter during the war. According to Bergstein, “Wearing an impractical pair of shoes implied that a woman had room in her life for caprice: the time, means, and desire to think beyond labor and the mechanics of survival.”

Fun fact: Did you know the slinky shoe’s name comes from its narrow width, rather than height of heel?

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Power Sneakers

The 1980s ushered in a surge of athletic sneakers, as symbolized by the white-on-white Reebok Freestyle. The trend could be ascribed to a number of factors, including a 1980 transit workers strike in New York City that forced many commuters to hoof it to work for 11 days, creating that defining Working Girl image of businesswomen in suits and chunky sneakers.

Fun fact: While Jane Fonda was barefoot in her debut 1982 fitness video, she and her fellow performers all wore Reebok Freestyles in the 1985 follow-up Jane Fonda’s New Workout, an example of well-executed product placement.

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Doc Martens

Doc Martens hit mainsteam American after they were popularized in the mid-80s and early 90s by grunge rock-types in the U.S. Northwest, but the famous boot was created in 1960 by Dr. Klaus Maertens, a German soldier on leave from the battlefield.

In the late 60s, steel-toed Doc Martens were deemed “offensive weapons” and British football fans were banned from wearing them to games.

The shoes were also embraced by skinheads, who used the color of the shoelaces to send messages. (White could signify white supremacy, for example.)

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Mary Janes

In the early 90s, the Mary Jane made a big-screen splash. Clueless’s costume designer Mona May’s modern take on innocent schoolgirl style was a big about-face to the popular grunge styles of the time. “The Mary Janes felt to us like the quintessentially youthful shoe … that a girl can wear, maybe even with a shorter miniskirt, and it keeps her very young, very sweet,” the designer said. The style started gaining popularity a little before then, even, when designer Steve Madden founded his eponymous company by selling samples out of his car trunk in 1989; the “Mary Lou”—a rounded Mary Jane—was his big break.

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Manolo Blahniks

By the time Sex and the City made them a household name in the late 1990s, Manolo Blahniks had been on the scene for more than 20 years. In fact, he designed the gold sandals Bianca Jagger wore when she rode a white horse into Studio 54 on her 30th birthday. His expensive, sexy, elegant shoes appealed to the growing number of powerful, independent career women who began climbing the corporate ladder in the 1980s. Funnily enough, Blahnik’s first runway collection for English designer Essie Clark in 1972 was an epic fail: his springy heels buckled on the catwalk. The experience spurred Blahnik to study shoe craftsmanship in Northampton, the center of English shoemaking.

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Choos and Louboutins

Manolo Blahniks and Sex and the City-era indulgence spurred the rise of these other modern-day serious splurge brands. Jimmy Choo’s first big-name client was Princess Diana, who began wearing his shoes during public appearances in 1996 while still married to Prince Charles. Writes Bergstein, “If the ladies at Jimmy Choo proved there was room at the top alongside Blahnik, French designer Louboutin swept in with his $700 heels, raising the bar for exclusivity, opulence, and cutting-edge cachet.”

As for Louboutin’s signature red bottoms? One tale has a posh couple in his Paris shop. The man flips over a shoe to examine its sole, then quickly leaves without buying anything, spurring the designer to make his soles more memorable. Another story says that Louboutin observed an assistant painting her nails red and thought the color would look beautiful on the underside of his shoes.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest