This winter when you slip into your leather boots that are equal parts fashionable and comfortable, give thanks to a fellow Long Island girl. Beth Levine was born on a small farm in Patchogue in 1914 and went on to leave her footprints all over the shoe design industry, making boots mainstream footwear in the process.
“Today, the most famous shoe designers are Christian Louboutin and Jimmy Choo. She was that then,” said Helene Verin, an adjunct professor at Fashion Institute of Technology and guest curator of Long Island Museum exhibit Beth Levine: The First Lady of Shoes.
Levine’s footwear is so revered Louboutin collects it. Nancy Sinatra would roll up to Levine’s factory in a Rolls Royce to have shoes custom made for her and famously wore a pair of Levine-designed boots while promoting her 1966 hit “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.” The boots were such a sensation in their own right that Saks Fifth Avenue opened a special section in its shoe department for Levine’s designs and called it Beth’s Bootery. First Ladies Jacqueline Kennedy, Pat Nixon and Lady Bird Johnson coveted her shoes for their comfort and style.
“She tried on every pair of shoes, so they all had to be very comfortable,” Verin said. “The difference between Beth’s designs and the men’s is that men will generally embellish a shoe and put something on it whereas Beth’s designs really came from the inside out.”
But when we think about premiere shoe designers, our minds tend to drift to Louboutin, Manolo Blahnik and Stuart Weitzman. All men. Blame sexism or the fact that Levine closed her factory in 1976 instead of selling it, but Verin herself has noticed a troubling trend: Levine’s name often gets left out of the pantheon of greats. It’s a pretty big snub. Walk through the exhibit and you’ll see shoes that have inspired designers for decades and that would still give us major closet envy today. Think black satin pumps and pointy shoes that don’t get narrow until the edge so the toes don’t get smooshed.
“Stuart Weitzman did a clear shoe 20 years after Beth,” Verin said of Levine’s 1961 “Cinderella Shoe” made of clear vinyl with a Lucite heel, silver kidshin details and lining. “Manolo Blahnik did a halter that Beth got the patent for in 1951. The thing that’s so amazing about it then are the shoes that were made 50 years ago are still relevant today. You’d still wear some of them.”
Verin has felt Levine’s influence throughout her own life. As a young shoe designer living in New York City, Verin would often cross paths with Levine at networking parties. They’d chat and eventually became close friends, spending holidays together.
“She was so funny and so true about what the fashion world is really like. She wasn’t a traditional, and I’m not either,” Verin recalled. “[She’d say] ‘If the shoe is beautiful and it doesn’t fit the foot, it’s not a quality shoe. It must fit the foot and the eye.’ The merging of incredible creativity with the comfort is huge and something I tried to do.”
And now Verin has made a mission of keeping Levine’s legacy alive; her friend passed away in 2006 at the age of 91. She’s begun to show her collection of Levine shoes, the largest in the world, curating exhibits at Dutch Shoe Museum and the Bellevue Arts Museum in Seattle.
“If I didn’t do it, I’d be scared that a great talent would be forgotten and I think it’s important to women, designers around the world and especially American women,” Verin said. “The more you know about history, the better designer you’re going to be because you’re going to know precedent.”
When Levine’s nephew, Ron and his wife, Nancy, who still operate a farm on the Island, suggested the exhibit to the Long Island Museum, museum officials contacted Verin. Giving her close friend’s work to Long Island was a no brainer.
“She’s always had a connection to Long Island,” Levine said. “A farmer’s daughter is how she always referred to herself.”
If You Go
Beth Levine: First Lady of Shoes
When: Now through Jan. 3, 2016
Where: Long Island Museum, Stony Brook
Price: $10 general admission, $7 for seniors, $5 for students and free for members and children under 6