December 2008

Wartime Whimsy

image of 1940s platform shoes
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Wartime Whimsy
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This trio was chosen for December’s shoe of the month because a recent discussion I had about the whimsy of platform shoes from the mid-1940s seemed to be a great way to move into the 2008 Holiday Season. It is at this time of year that most women must carefully choose their outfits for holiday parties, and a matching shoe and handbag combination always seems to set the outfit off in a special way. The idea of matching one’s shoes to one’s handbag is a relatively recent fashion concept, it began in the early 20th century and quickly became a clear sign of being well turned out. In fact in the ‘50s and early ‘60s middle and upper class women in North America would have considered an outfit incomplete if their accessories did not match one another.

These shoes and their matching handbag (1) were purchased at Owens and Elmes in Toronto in 1944 and complimented the appearance of a fortunate woman from Hamilton, Ontario. The shoes would most truthfully be described as peep-toe, platform sling-backs, but they are part of the larger genre known as “platforms”. (2) The open toes and straps of these shoes are a refined response to the sandal trend of the 1930s, the first time that women in the 20th century could show glimpses of their bare feet. Evening sandals were introduced in the late ‘30s once daytime sandals became fashionable as families across the continent flocked to beaches for affordable holidays. The platform under the ball of the foot and the heel are made from wood, the shoes are covered in a green fabric that is meant to look like suede and they’re trimmed with snakeskin. None of these materials were on the European or North American war-time ration lists, which included among other materials, petroleum, leather, rubber and silk. This list of rationed materials strained the resources of the shoemaking industry because it left very few materials for production.

This difficulty was embraced as a challenge by innovative shoemakers and these shoes are a good example of the quirky fashion of the ‘40s which focussed more on the creation of the image of women “making do” and “taking care” of the home front, rather than the sexy glamour of the preceding 1930s. The classic elegance of the stiletto heels of the 1950s would replace this casual look in turn. With a large percentage of women working at factories to support the war effort while their husbands were fighting overseas, shoes needed to be stable and sensible for working during the day but a little fun and pretty for evenings out with the girls. The added height that platform shoes offered to women was much appreciated and when coupled with the broad-shouldered suits of the ‘40s, they helped a woman present a strong and healthy image. A bit of whimsy at the end of the war was what most women were seeking in their fashion, and shoes were a primary element of this.

The snakeskin (3) is especially interesting to me because it is a very luxurious material, making it appear at odds with war-time deprivation, but, as you can see, it is used sparingly, more as decoration than as the primary material. A parallel can be drawn here between the hinted luxury of the trend for women to wear fur stoles and collars during the Depression rather than a full-length fur coat.

In 1936 platform shoes appeared in the fashion magazines and on the runways of Europe. Five years later, in 1941, they caught on in North America. Platforms as a genre are often seen in fashion in times of social and political evolution. In the ‘40s they constitute a fashion style adopted during the Second World War. Then they don’t resurface until the early 1970s, also a time of political unrest in the Western world. Most recently in the mid-1990s platform shoes came back as a statement of “Girl Power” with performers like the Spice Girls adopting them as part of their strong costume. As a style they are empowering because they make women appear taller and more robust, yet another way of putting women on a pedestal.

But the fascination with platform shoes rarely lasts very long because they are often seen in hindsight as being cumbersome, heavy and a bit dowdy, especially in juxtaposition to the slender, elegant sexy high heel that men (and many women) prefer. We’ll be seeing platforms again sometime in the next twenty years, and perhaps we’ll be lucky enough to have the designers of the future look to pairs like this for inspiration.