I just finished reading the amazing and entertaining book, Women from the Ankle Down: The story of shoes and how they define us. Besides being a fun read, I found the history lessons incredibly enlightening (it’s made me download a whole bunch of fashion history books). One of the major lessons was around how shoes have played a pivotal role in shaping our culture, both popular culture (movies, music, etc) and otherwise. One of my favorite quotes from the book is by Valerie Steele, the curator of the Fashion Institute Museum (dream job alert!), who says:

…high heels are neither intrinsically “empowering or disempowering,” but by identifying how they’d like to spend their hard-earned money, women are now indulging themselves in a way that men have long felt entitled to do. “Americans in general tend to think that money spent on fashion is somehow wasted, while money spent on other consumer items – like watches or camera equipment or studio equipment – is somehow not also wasteful, even if you’re just playing with them.” She goes on: “There’s a sense now that women have the right to spend money on themselves, and clearly what a lot of women have said is that they want shoes, and that they had a spcial relationship with them.”


Brilliant. I bought it on my Kindle for $11 and I could have read it in one sitting. In honor of Rachelle Berstein’s fabulous research, here are 10 Iconic Shoes that changed history and literally stole the show:

Ruby Red Slippers

worn by Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz

The ruby red slippers that Dorothy wore to get her back to Kansas are the most iconic shoes of all movie history. They are practically a character in themselves and move the plot forward in magical ways. The story told by Bernstein in Women from the Ankle Down about the shoes is that they went through many colors and iterations to become what we know today as the ruby red slippers. In the original story, they were gold, not red, but because of technicolor, they changed them to be red in order to really stand out.

Though it is disputed as to how many ‘official’ ruby red slippers are floating around, the named official shoes went for a whopping $666,000 a few years back in auction to a Hollywood paraphernalia  collector who believes he’s made a great investment. I think so, too.

Ruby red slippers may be more costume-y than classic now, but I have a feeling that Laboutin’s red sole was influenced a wee bit by them.

Knee-High Go Go Boots

worn by Nancy Sinatra in These Boots are Made for Walking

The song, not written by Nancy, but Lee Hazelwood and intended to be performed by a man, has become the official song of the Go Go boot. Funny that, because it was really intended to reference cowboy boots and a man whose girl has been stepping out on him. Personally, I think if the song had been sung by a man, it wouldn’t have been nearly as impactful.

Also fun to hear is that Nancy didn’t own one, but MANY pairs of boots in multiple colors from multiple designers. Nancy Sinatra, in her interview for the book, quipped that she’s kept many of them, one pair actually made table lamps!

Checkered Vans

worn by Spicoli on Fast Times at Ridgemont High

It wasn’t only women wearing shoes in movies and music that influenced culture, it was also men. In 1982, Sean Penn as the lovable loser, Jeff Spicoli, led the way to a mainstream success of popular skater shoes Vans. And not just any Vans, it was the black and white checkered ones that came into so much demand.

The best part of this story is that the Vans weren’t any sort of product placement at all. They were actually bought and owned by Sean Penn on his way to filming. He noticed the shoes and thought they’d suit his character. He was right.

Slip-on Black Loafers

worn by Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face doing her adorable Beatnik dance

Often mistaken for ballet flats (I’ll cover those, too), Audrey Hepburn danced the most charming dance of all time in a pair of black suede slip-on loafers (Salvatore Ferragamo designed these and was the designer behind MANY a movie footwear costume in those days and earlier in the century).

Cute story about this outfit. When the director, Stanley Donen, presented Hepburn with the outfit, she did NOT like the idea of wearing white socks, but Donen wouldn’t back down. Later, Hepburn would send a note to Donen saying, “You were right about the socks.” Personally, I love how they framed the loafer.

If you haven’t seen the dance sequence, I highly recommend going to see it now. It’s so quirky.

Manolo Blahnik’s Something Blue Wedding Shoes

worn by Carrie Bradshaw in the Sex and the City Movie

Sex and the City and Manolo Blahnik are pretty much completely intertwined. There is something about that show that I feel raised the bar on the shoe buying craze for women. It was as if Carrie and her companions were hired by a member of the International Shoe Sales Federation to rebrand shoe buying as a completely empowering thing for a woman to do. Whatever…it worked. And now Manolo Blahnik is a household name and completely synonymous with female empowerment.

These particular shoes played a big part in the movie itself, reuniting Carrie and Big when we thought all hope was lost. Actually, I was kind of hoping she’d pick the shoes over the man, but that’s just me.

Platform Heels for Men

worn by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever

According to Bernstein, there are very few points in history when it was a-ok for men to wear heels and platforms could be visible. In Europe, back during the court of Louis XVI, it was very fashionable for anyone of the upper class -men and women- to wear towering platforms. The Egyptians and the Asians also have historical significance with platforms and nobility. But it wasn’t until the late 60′s that we saw the platform return for men – and this time it was less about being blue blooded, it was about being hot blooded.

Even though platforms were already well-established in the disco scene before Tony stepped out in Saturday Night Fever, his king of the club strut caused a more mainstream surge in the wearing and acceptance of these shoes. And with Prada and a few other brands, I’m now seeing a comeback again. What does it all mean?

Glass Slipper

worn by Cinderella over the ages

Much like the ruby red slipper, Cinderella’s glass slipper was central to a plot of a story, yet remains to be a fashion phenomenon. The glass slipper is more of a metaphor than anything. It’s a metaphor for authenticity (only one person can fit a shoe that won’t stretch). A metaphor for purity (pristine untarnished glass, like the heart of it’s wearer). A metaphor for femininity (small size and dainty, fragile material could only mean the wearer is dainty and feminine).

It’s also the classic tale that keeps America so attractive – a classless world in which a prince can fall in love with a commoner. There is hope for all of us, right?

Chuck Taylor Converse All Stars

as worn by Chuck Taylor

The evolution of the sneaker has been an interesting one and the story of the Chuck Taylor Converse All Stars is even more fascinating. I believe it was the first ever athlete endorsement. Converse was the first mass produced sneaker in North America thanks to the technology available to mold and melt rubber to other materials (vulcanization – unrelated to Spock!) invented in the late 1800′s.

Charles ‘Chuck’ Taylor was a basketball player AND shoe salesman who not only endorsed the shoe and sold it, he also was involved in improving it to the classic you see today. Though All Stars are no longer the de facto basketball shoe (I’d say Air Jordans helped with that), they’ve moved on to become iconic in other communities. They were particularly popular amongst the grunge folks in the early 90′s. That’s when I bought my first pair. Still find them incredibly uncomfortable, though.

Dr. Martens

as worn in several iconic movements & by several iconic figures

Doc Martens have a long history of being a sturdy boot, but they became a fashion icon -for me anyway- the moment I first laid eyes on Gwen Stefani. Like many people, I had always thought of Dr. Martens as the boots that the skinheads and punk rockers wore. But when women started wearing them: Tank Girl (okay, she’s a cartoon, but still…it wasn’t easy finding feminist icons), Shirley Manson (Garbage) and Gwen, I sat up and took notice.

So did Doc Marten – they noticed that they were selling out of many of the smaller men’s sizes and when they found out they had a market in women? They created a women’s line with women’s sizing made on women’s lasts, some feminine prints and even these hot pink numbers. Classic black is always the best though.

Repetto BB Ballet Flats

as worn by Brigitte Bardot in And God Created Woman

When I think of sex symbols, I rarely imagine them wearing anything on their feet but stilettos. Flat shoes seem to live in the realm of the ‘smart girls’ like Audrey Hepburn. But Brigitte Bardot didn’t fit that mold. In fact, many don’t know this, but before she was an on-screen bombshell, she was a trained ballerina and danced in shoes designed by Rose Repetto (who started her brand for her son in 1947).

When Bardot was a rising star, she asked Rose Repetto to design her a ballet like shoe for everyday wear and the Repetto BB (Bardot’s initials) were born. To this day, the ballet flat is a lovely alternative to wearing heels. They are comfy, yet flirty and elegant.


So, there you go. 10 iconic shoes. There are more, too, and as I’ve been researching this post, I’ve come across some great reading including:

A whole bunch of posts by RunningInHeels on Rachelle Bernstein’s book
A Reader’s Digest post on Rachelle Bernstein’s book

I guess I’m behind. Enjoy!



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