Stepping Out

Bellevue Arts Museum shows over a hundred shoes by pioneering designer Beth Levine

February 8, 2010


Considering modern designers like Diane von Furstenberg, Stella McCartney, and even Tory Burch, it’s hard to imagine an America that didn’t allow iconic, groundbreaking shoe wear designer Beth Levine to put her own name on the beautifully made souls of her artful pumps.

And in fact, as Bellevue Arts Museum curator Nora Atkinson told me, the designer and her husband Herbert Levine, whose name took Beth’s place there under the arched step of so many stylish women’s feet beginning in the early 50s, they were hesitant to use his when they sent their first shipment to a department store in the south, fearing anti-semitic backlash.

BAM’s Beth Levine show, which opens on February 18 and represents the only such show in this country (can you believe that??), is set to be a personality-driven, architectural heel-studded walk through fashion history that gives way to many conversations about the ownership of ideas and the cultural impact of haute couture and everyday dress in America.

Then again, it should also be really fun just crusing through and imagining wearing all that smart, practical, but completely beautiful design. And then maybe shopping afterward.

Some things to think about before you go:

-Levine was a Lithuanian farmer’s daughter who knew a thing or two about calfskin and animal hides when, at 38 in 1946, she moved to New York to work as a shoe model as a means of getting her … um, foot in the door to become a designer.

-Yeah, you guessed it: The leadership in the male-run factories in those days weren’t interested, until she proved to them that she was bringing ideas, and solutions. And an American design identity — until Levine came along, the shoe industry in the states was based on replicating European looks.

-Beth met Herbert in one of the factories; they opened their own manufacturing operation in ’49. It closed in ’75, though she continued consulting and designing after that.

-Her clients included Jackie O, Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, Cher, and Nancy Sinatra — Levine is credited with bringing those boots made for walking to haute couture.

Yes, her sexiest styles would fit a modern day Carrie Bradshaw type, but she had a sense of humor and wild innovation, too. She designed one style lined in an AstroTurf-like material - she was a farmer’s daughter, don’t forget, and thought everyone needed to feel the "grass" between their toes. Check the slideshow here for more.

-We wouldn’t know as much about Levine without expert and author Helene Verin, who will speak at BAM’s preview party.

-We wouldn’t have access to so many historical perspectives without the help of Seattle-based design legend Sara Little Turnbull, who loaned a dozen or so styles for the show.

Start making plans now to stroll through the exhibit with your most amazingly shod and design-savvy friends — as to whether or not you’ll want to wear your museum-friendly comfortable shoes, I’ll leave that to you.

Show Comments