In 1976, one year after they closed their business, Herbert and Beth Levine were celebrated with a retrospective of their work by The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. For over three decades, Beth had originated the collections of her husband’s eponymous label, and established the cutting edge of shoe design in America. Curated by the Levine’s longtime friend and former Neiman Marcus executive, Arthur Englander, dozens of examples of Beth’s innovative creations were arranged on pedestals, or, to better emphasize their profiles, mounted in groupings on walls. For the installation of the exhibition, Beth had lent Englander the honey-colored leather cobbler’s apron that she used to wear in her studio. This ostensibly prosaic garment--it was in fact made by Hermes--was quintessentially Beth. In its utility, it represented the designer’s direct involvement in the crafting of her shoes, while in its simple luxury it revealed her insistence on chic, even in the down and dirty, glue and hobnails process entailed by the hands-on, working out of her designs.
Unfortunately, no catalogue exists of the exhibition. However, many of the pieces selected by Englander were eventually donated to the permanent archives of the Museum. These shoes and boots represent some of Beth’s wildest experiments: driving pumps in the form of cars, slides lined in Astro-turf, or stocking boots that extend into a wrapped bodysuit. Although she prided herself on her pragmatism, originating, for example, a spring mechanism for the instep of her mules to prevent them from slipping off, Beth’s imagination was much too expansive and unfettered to be restricted by principles of functionalism. Many of her signature designs, therefore, are poised between the requisite qualities of utility and aesthetics, and comfort and seduction. Beth’s great talent was to explore a variety of stylistic strands—post-war modernism, orientalist exoticism, space-age utopianism, and pop art whimsy—and infuse them all with a clear American inflection.
Like many designers whose careers were established in the period immediately following WWII, Beth’s innovations, while familiar to a world of fashion specialists and her surviving contemporaries, are less well known to the wider public. Still, over the years, Beth’s signature designs have been sought after by private collectors and museums, and have continued to influence designers. When Tokio Kumagai showed a line of playfully appliquéd flats in his Place des Victoires boutique in the 1980s, they were immediately recognizable as the progeny of Beth’s pop art-inspired work of twenty years earlier. More recently, when the buckled pilgrim shoe made famous by Roger Vivier was revived, few knew that it was the style first proposed by Beth, and originally taken up by the French designer only after the recommendations of American buyers.
It is time to give credit where credit is due: in an era when American fashion was still in the shadow of Paris and the haute couture, Beth’s work achieved international preeminence. While fashion designers like Claire McCardell and Bonnie Cashin established an American vocabulary of sportswear distinctive from European models, Beth’s sensibility never rejected the sophistication of post-war high fashion. Instead, she was able to assert a fresh clarity and modernity to the prevailing notions of elegance. Perhaps, because of this, Diana Vreeland, the iconic editor of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, determined that Beth’s American designs exceeded even her highest Francophilic standards. Happily, Beth’s career and designs were well-documented in her own time, and are reinforced by records and scrapbooks from the designer’s own archives. Of course, Beth herself, through her wry reminiscences and lively anecdotal repartee established the possibility of an eventual aggregation of the rich history of her contributions to 20th century shoe design.
The Costume Institute collection contains an example of Beth’s minimalist, “topless” shoe. It is only the arched sole of a shoe with a narrow high heel. Beth intended that it be “worn” by using adhesive pads to adhere the shoe to the foot. The black silk edge of the sole outlining the foot, and the stem-like heel would be barely visible. Essentially, the effect would be of a bared, tip-toeing foot: nature supported by artifice, and like much of Beth’s work, elegance achieved through material mastery, aesthetic virtuosity, and ironic wit: pure Herbert Levine, and pure Beth.