When the Long Island Museum announced its first-ever footwear exhibition, "Beth Levine: The First Lady of Shoes," my initial question was, Who?
Lots of people ask that question, says Helene Verin, the show's curator and author of "Beth Levine Shoes," published three years after Levine's death in 2006.
"She's the 20th century's most important shoe designer but doesn't get credit because the industry was Eurocentric and sexist," says Verin, a Fashion Institute of Technology adjunct professor.
Elizabeth Katz, a Patchogue farmgirl, got her start in 1949 when the size-4 foot model married Herbert Levine and they started a company. Before Jimmy Choo and Manolo Blahnik, names you heard thrown around by the shoe consumers of "Sex and the City," Levine "introduced stilettos, mules and fashion boots to American women," Verin says. "She created objects of desire and even lust."
Levine, raised around cows, found inspiration in nature -- from leather to frogskin. But soon her ingenuity encompassed such materials as patchwork quilts and vinyl. Sport and historic events -- auto racing and the first lunar landing -- also inspired her. She designed AstroTurf shoes and butterfly boots, seen in the exhibit's "experimental" display.
None of the shoes she designed for first ladies -- Mamie Eisenhower, Jacqueline Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson and Pat Nixon -- are here, though there's an image of Nixon's 1973 inaugural shoes of turquoise silk crepe. Among many celebrities Levine designed for were Marilyn Monroe and Barbra Streisand. See templates for the Streisand shoe and for the white go-go boots Nancy Sinatra wore in promoting her 1966 hit "These Boots Are Made for Walking."
"There was no such thing as the fashion boot for American women before Beth," Verin says.
Among her ideas that didn't catch on is the topless pump, exhibited with the adhesive applicator that kept it adhered to the sole. A similar idea succeeded. The "Spring-O-Lator's" elastic strip kept a stockinged heel in place without a strap. There's also the "stocking boot" (pantyhose with heels attached), the "Kabuki" shoe set atop a curved wooden platform, and the "Cinderella," made of clear plastic or vinyl.
Even when innovation succeeded, it didn't always pay. In a video interview in the exhibit, Levine complains that shoe companies only wanted "whatever was hot last year." And if your new idea got manufactured, it was usually the knockoffs a season later that profited.
Earlier in her career, Levine enjoyed the freedom of designing for the company that bore her husband's name. But when Herbert Levine Inc. closed in 1976, the Levines refused to sell the name. "That's one reason she's not known today," says Verin. "Chanel sold his name and everyone today knows the brand. . . . That's why I wrote the book and curated this exhibit. She was like Andy Warhol to me when I came to New York in 1979. People know his name, but not Beth's."
WHAT: "Beth Levine: The First Lady of Shoes"
WHEN | WHERE: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays; through Jan. 3, Long Island Museum of American Art, History & Carriages, 1200 Rte. 25A, Stony Brook
ADMISSION: $10, $7 seniors, $5 students; 631-751-0066, longislandmuseum.org