Paris. Milan. London. Haverhill, Massachusetts. To quote our friends on Sesame Street, one of these places might not seem like the others. Yet much like those cosmopolitan meccas of high fashion, the small city on the Merrimack River once made some of the most coveted, luxurious and innovative shoes in the world.
And we have the evidence to prove it. Masterfully crafted shoes and boots made by two Haverhill firms in the last 19th and mid-20th centuries are included in the PEM exhibition Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, sharing gallery space with the likes of Christain Louboutin, Jimmy Choo, and Manolo Blahnik.
“In the late 19th century, the U.S. led the world in shoe production, and some of the most amazing shoes were made here on the North Shore, right in our own backyard,” said Paula Richter, PEM Curator for Exhibitions and Research. “People know more about the textile industry in Massachusetts, but the shoe industry was also economically important.”
The Peabody Essex Museum owns one of the largest public collections of shoes in the United States, so it seemed fitting to curators to complement the 200 works in the Shoes exhibition, organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, with a selection of footwear from this museum’s vast collection.
Part of PEM’s ongoing fashion initiative, the exhibition explores the transformative power of footwear, how shoes can be viewed as artwork or sculpture, and the complex relationships people have with objects that originated as a form of protection.
“Shoes have moved so far beyond their basic functionality, that is what I find so fascinating,” said Richter. “It is an object that has been around for millennia yet it continues to inspire designers with its endless possibilities.”
At one time, the shoes and boots made in Haverhill factories represented the most cutting-edge innovation of the time. The selection on view was exhibited at two World’s Fairs, in Philadelphia in 1876 and Chicago in 1893, chosen to bring the most exquisite designs and technological advances in the industry to a world stage.
The shoes belonged to an important collection of footwear amassed by the United Shoe Machinery Corporation based in Boston and Beverly and donated by its successor, the Emhart Corp. Shortly after the company was founded in 1899, United Shoe executives acquired shoes when traveling to use as promotional tools and for research. In 1977, Emhart donated the entire collection — more than 4,000 shoes — to PEM.
The high quality of Massachusetts-made footwear is also represented in a selection of evening shoes once sold at Ralph’s, a high-end shoe store in Newton and Boston. The shoes represent the collaboration of a French designer; Shain’s, a shoe manufacturer in Haverhill; and Faybert, a Chicago company that provided the elaborate rhinestone ornamentation.
“With a little spotlight on them in the gallery, they just dazzle,” said Richter.
Alan Sweet, the last owner of Ralph’s, donated the collection to PEM in 2000. The donor remembered clients buying shoes from this line to wear to 1961 inaugural events for President John F. Kennedy.
Move ahead some 50 years, and painstaking hand ornamentation is replaced by cutting-edge 3-D printing technology. In 12 Shoes for 12 Lovers, New York–based contemporary artist Sebastian Errazuriz creates footwear meant to represent12 different women with whom he has had an intimate relationship. The shoes are each named after a specific lover — The Jetsetter, The Gold Digger, The Cry Baby (which appears on the magazine cover) and so on. The Shoes exhibition marks the first time PEM has displayed this provocative collection.
The show also provided curators with an opportunity to present pieces from the Marilyn Riseman collection, donated to PEM in 2014. From the 1960s until her death in 2014, this well-connected and savvy businesswoman was Boston’s muse of style. Riseman preferred flat or very low-heeled shoes like menswear-inspired Oxfords, but also loved more playful examples like hidden wedge sneakers.
If the response to the 2009 PEM exhibition Rare Bird of Fashion:The Irreverent Iris Apfel is any indication, guests will be delighted to see three of the fashion maverick’s eclectic ensembles along with 13 pairs of Apfel’s shoes and boots in the exhibition, including the sumptuous silk boots pictured below.
Explore the creativity of footwear from around the globe in Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, on view at PEM through March 12, 2017.