Insight - 06/17/24

Design History Series N. 016

4 min

By Meghan Day

Beth Levine and American Footwear

In our Design History Series we highlight iconic women in design history and their innovative work. The historic contributions of women to design are many, and we aim to increase the awareness of these contributions in order to counteract a general trend of underrepresentation. In this issue we celebrate Beth Levine, the most influential and innovative American shoe designer of the twentieth century. 

Tiny Feet, Big Dreams

Beth Levine, dubbed “America’s First Lady of Shoe Design,” left an indelible mark on the world of footwear that continues to influence contemporary fashion. Born in Patchogue, New York, in 1914, Levine soon left Long Island for a shoe modeling career in New York City. She had incredibly tiny feet (US size 4, EU size 35) that were the sample size of the era, and developed a keen intuition for how shoes would fit. At the time, shoe designers were men, usually those descended from generations of cobblers. Levine realized that she understood just as much about what constituted a good shoe as these prominent designers, if not more, and was determined to design shoes herself.

Creating the Brand

In 1946, while applying to work at a shoe manufacturer, she met and married Herbert Levine, then a fashion executive. The two founded their shoe factory, Herbert Levine, Inc. in 1948 and Beth began making shoes under Herbert’s name. At the time, footwear had not yet been sold with a woman’s name on the product. The factory was known for its excellence, and talent was brought to New York from all over the world to ensure top quality. She was known for relishing the challenges of footwear, saying “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.”

The couple had a vision to create shoes that were not just functional but also captivating. Using strategic cutouts and careful material choices, Levine became known for shoes that made women’s feet appear smaller and were therefore perceived as more elegant. Levine is credited with repopularizing the mule silhouette with this approach. At the same time, she wanted her designs to be comfortable above all, and she wasn’t afraid to be playful and bold. Beth’s innovative designs and Herbert’s business sense propelled the brand to prominence, garnering attention from fashion icons like Barbra Streisand and America’s first ladies of the era; Lady Bird Johnson, Patricia Nixon, and Jacqueline Kennedy. 

Making History (Again and Again)

One of Beth’s most significant contributions to footwear design was her role in reintroducing boots to women’s fashion in the 1960s. Through her creative vision, boots transformed from utilitarian items into stylish fashion statements. Her stretchy stocking styles and vinyl Go-Go boots captured the spirit of the era and became iconic symbols of liberation and empowerment, epitomized by Nancy Sinatra’s hit song “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’.” The song not only propelled the demand for fashion boots but also led to the establishment of “Beth’s Bootery”, a dedicated fashion boot department at Saks Fifth Avenue. 

Beth’s designs were characterized by their whimsical charm and innovative use of materials. On a dare she designed “topless” or “upper-less” heels, shoes with no upper that would be affixed to the foot with adhesive pads. She called another style “Barefoot in the Grass” and lined the insole with AstroTurf. For the wife of a driver in the 1967 Indianapolis 5000, she designed a shoe that resembles (adorably) a race car, which became so popular that variations on the design were released for years afterward. Her creations pushed the boundaries of conventional footwear. She experimented with unconventional materials (hello, AstroTurf) like vinyl, acrylic, and laminate, creating shoes that were not only visually striking but also ahead of their time. She also developed the now universally standard practice of putting an illustration of the shoe on the outside of the shoebox. 

An Enduring Legacy

Throughout her career, Beth Levine received numerous accolades for her groundbreaking designs, including the prestigious Coty Award in 1967. Her ability to marry creativity with functionality revolutionized the shoe industry and paved the way for future generations of designers. Despite the closure of the Herbert Levine brand in 1975, Beth’s legacy endures through her iconic designs, many of which are housed in international costume collections. To Levine, who passed away in 2006, the only mistake in design is to “play it safe”. Today, her innovative spirit continues to inspire designers and fashion enthusiasts alike, reminding us of the enduring impact of her contributions to the history of footwear design.

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