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.

"Scandal Sandals," Pineapple Heels and Dance Boots; FIT Exhibit Presents a History of Delman Shoes

Renata Espinosa
March 12th, 2010 @ 5:24 PM - New York

It’s hard to believe, but in the history of fashion, shoe obsession is a relatively recent phenomenon. When hemlines started creeping, oh-so-scandalously, above the ankle in the 1910s, that’s when shoe design really took off, and footwear companies like Delman shoes provided women with a range of glamorous options for their twinkle toes.

A new exhibit at The Museum at FIT, “Scandal Sandals and Lady Slippers: A History of Delman Shoes,” chronicles the American shoe company’s wide array of fancy footwear for the classiest ladies of the day, from 1926 to the present. Herman Delman founded the company in 1919.

“Women in the past wore much more varied styles throughout the day, not just one shoe for the day,” explained co-curator Sarah Byrd, a graduate student at FIT in the Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice program. “You would have your shoe that you would wear to go walking in the city in, and then you would maybe change into a dinner shoe and that would be slightly more elegant. There were cocktail sandals and hostess slippers that you would wear when you had formal guests to your home, shoes to wear in the country, boots for the rain, and things like that--and he made all of them.”

Spread across a long hallway and intimate gallery space, heels carved to look like pineapples and fierce nail-studded platform wedges from the 1940s that wouldn’t look out of place at a punk club in the ‘70s are arranged under glass cases alongside vintage ads and photos of celebrities like Joan Crawford surrounded by carefully arranged rows of Delman shoes.

Delman was one of the first brands sold in department stores to carry its own label, not the label of the department store, i.e. Saks Fifth Avenue. In 1926, Delman opened an ornate shoe salon on Madison Avenue designed to look like a Louis XVI-style gallery, where exotic shoes made from unusual skins like zebra, frog and monkey were displayed like works of art for perusal by tony Upper East Side socialites.

But unconventional materials weren’t just a matter of style. During WWII, the use of leather in shoes was forbidden, so shoe designers like Delman created innovative styles out of wooden platforms and brightly colored fabrics. The exhibition also features newsreels from the 1940s and 1950s that show models wearing those types of designs.

Though the Delman ready-to-wear line of shoes was more popular, they created many custom shoes for the socialites and celebrities Herman Delman associated with. One shoe in the exhibit features a inscription on the sock liner that reads, “For Mrs. A. Cole.”

“We tried to find out who Mrs. A Cole was, but she was a little bit elusive,” laughed Byrd.

A 1948 shoe, “Tango Tie,” designed for ballroom dancer Irene Castle, became known as the “scandal sandal,” from which the exhibit takes its name. In a nearby case, there’s also a ready-to-wear version of a red satin pump with rhinestone “cuff-link” toe detail that replicates a $25,000 diamond-studded pair of custom shoes that Ava Gardner wore for the premiere of her 1954 film “The Barefoot Contessa.”

Delman also worked with famed shoe designer Roger Vivier in the 1950s, who later returned to the company in 1992 and designed the famous “comma heel.”

But whether catering to wealthy socialites with his signature collection, or the “college and career girl” with his lower-priced Delmanette line, “designed to fit your feet and your pocketbook,” the goal for Delman was the same: to make women look and feel more “fashionable, graceful and glamorous.”

“Women gained more for themselves in 1919 than the right to vote - fashion gave them the right expose a well-turned ankle and calf,” wrote Herman Delman in a guest column for the Miami Daily News on Aug. 18, 1950. “Today, a man may not judge a woman by the way she casts her ballot, but he does very often judge her by the impression he gets in that normal first male glance...I’m of the opinion you can tell more about a woman by the shoes she wears than by reading her palm.”

“Scandal Sandals and Lady Slippers: A History of Delman Shoes” is on view at The Museum at FIT through April 4.

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