Put a spring in your step
Jun 24, 2020 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
By the mid-century a revolution was afoot. Dior’s New Look and the joy of a post-war world pushed fashion into new directions. In the realm of shoes, things became more bold. Exposing a heel was no longer just for the bedroom slipper. (Marie Antoinette would have been shocked to see her favorite shoe design gracing the promenade!) With pinup fashion bringing mules to the mainstream, the average woman faced a problem. In a photo shoot, shoes didn’t have to be practical. In the real world, we can’t escape the realities of gravity. Slipping into a pair of mules meant that women were tottering about to the click-clack of a new rhythm. Something had to be done to address this precarious situation. Hope was on the way, but first we have to go back to the beginning…
The year was 1914 when Beth Katz was born on a New York dairy farm. By her early 20s she made the move so many other bright-eyed young women made before her – she relocated to the big apple. Finding work as a shoe model, she soon worked her way up to the design studio. By the time of the second world war, she was looking for new creative challenges and met her husband Herbert Levine. He ran the business-side of the shoe company and she was the visionary. The mission of their fledgling business was to create something of beauty for each of their clients. The world took notice when she tackled the issue of stabilizing the mule. Beth’s inspiration came from an unlikely source – men’s work boots. The liners in these boots kept the toes from pushing too close to the front. Beth reasoned that this sort of tension could be the ticket to creating a tighter and more secure mule. Enter the spring-o-later. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of wearing a vintage spring-o-later I don’t have to tell you – it feels like you’re being enveloped in feminine confidence. The heel elevates you, grounding you in power. And then that comforting hug of the elastic in the sole makes you feel so sure of yourself, you could walk for miles. Her innovative solution became wildly popular with women nationwide. Beth described her approach as follows: “Clothes designers have gravity on their side, but shoe designers work upside down. Ideas are easy to come by. Getting them realized is something else.” Her comment reminds me of my favorite analysis of Ginger Roger’s talents: she did everything that Fred Astaire did, backwards & in heels. Beth never shirked from a challenge and she was never shy about introducing whimsy to her creations.
She often collaborated with the biggest names in fashion and her enthusiasm for pushing boundaries earned her the nickname “America’s First Lady of Shoe Design.” In 1967 her peers formally recognized her contributions with the coveted Coty Award. While she helped many an American beauty put a spring in her step, she also helped a famous songstress walk off into the sunset. Nancy Sinatra wore a Levine original for her epic ballad “These Boots are Made for Walkin’.” In fact, her fashionable boots sparked such a trend that Saks had to dedicate floor space just for “Beth’s Bootery.” Levine’s shoes could also be seen gracing the feet of multiple first ladies and famous actresses.
Beth continued to innovate throughout her decades-long career. When I view her body of work I’m reminded of Elsa Schiaperlli. There is something so exuberant about her visions. It is as if they were created in a wonderful dream and they’re here as our invitation into a world of happiness. I dare you to look at her AstroTurf shoe and not smile. Her race car shoe is a separate delight. One common thread among all her individual looks: Beth was a designer who was at ease with her palette. Her eye for a material’s possibility was impeccable. In 1976 the Met celebrated this by hosting an exhibit of her sculptural work. With the spring-o-later Beth explored the foot in motion and that inspired her most daring idea: the topless shoe. This was the silhouette of a heel paired with an adhesive on the bottom of the foot. It didn’t catch on, but I love how daring it is! Beth never backed down from a challenge. I encourage you dear reader, with whatever endeavors you pursue, to mirror this joyful confidence. Put a spring in your step, feel the AstroTurf between your toes and channel it into something beautiful!