The question of who truly invented the stiletto has long been debated by fashionistas and historians alike: While some say Salvatore Ferragamo is the mastermind behind the iconic heel, others credit French designer Roger Vivier with refining the modern stiletto.
Now shoe lovers can take a closer look into the shoe's history by visiting the exhibit "Roger Vivier: Process To Perfection" beginning May 9 at Toronto's Bata Shoe Museum.
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The first North American exhibit of its kind dedicated to Roger Vivier, shoe by shoe, the exhibit unravels the tale of the French designer’s life through his work and contribution to fashion.
The Huffington Post caught up with Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum and author of “Heights of Fashion: A History of the Elevated Shoe” to learn more about the new exhibit.
How did Roger Vivier first become a shoe designer?
After a career on stage didn’t work out for him, Vivier ended up studying sculpture at L'Ecole Des Beaux Arts. A family friend gave him a job at a shoe factory outside of Paris, where he learned the ins and outs of shoe design and realized he could make sculptures to be worn. He created shoes for people like Josephine Baker and Mistinguett from his very own custom made shoe shop.
Where did you first spot Vivier's connection with the stiletto?
When researching Vivier, I found all of his US patents that he did when working for Delman. What I find interesting, from a historical point of view, is that he became famous for inventing the pilgrim buckle shoe and he is associated with the refinement of the stiletto and you can actually see these at the beginning of his career.
When did Vivier truly make it as a designer?
Vivier's career was established in the 1950s when he became the shoe designer for Christian Dior after returning from New York to Paris. His interest in the architecture and the tailoring of shoes really spoke to Dior.
Did Vivier invent the stiletto?
Vivier is often credited with inventing the stiletto; he didn’t invent it, but he certainly did refine it. Who invented it still needs to be figured out. It’s more of a group effort: one person coming up with the concept for the shoe, the other person refining that concept. It’s give and take.
Which of his shoes was closely linked to the stiletto?
Vivier debuted the needle heel in 1954. And the needle heel is really slender. But one of the things a lot of people associate with the stilettos is the very thin tube. Vivier didn’t seem to be able not to do something architectural with his shoes.
When was the stiletto heel invented?
The stiletto heel was not invented until after World War II. Prior to the war, no designer ever attempted to create the stiletto because wood couldn’t support the weight of a woman. It would have been the equivalent of walking on chopsticks. After World War II you have the extrusion of steel allowing designers to make steel rods that could support a woman’s weight.
What impact did World War II have on Vivier's career?
When the war hit, he had to close his shop thanks to the restrictions on leather. After a short stint in the military, it wasn’t before long he was coming over to the United States at the request of Herman Delman in New York. The U.S. was not yet in the war, so he began designing shoes for Delman.
How else did fashion change after the war?
After World War II, there’s a reinterpretation of femininity that encourages women to shed the Rosie the Riveter image and be more feminine. The new curvy look comes into fashion along with the high heel. Women’s fashion is brought into alignment with male erotica. And so high heels are associated with that very curvy new look. But the actual stiletto -- the really thin stiletto -- only emerges when the very thin straight 'H-Line' silhouette debuts in 1953 and 1954. Instead of curves, women were described as having “stiletto slimness”.
What were some other milestones in Vivier’s career?
In 1953, he became extremely famous when he made the jewel encrusted shoes for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. It’s amazing to imagine a British Monarch receiving the crown in French shoes. Another milestone followed in 1955 when Dior granted Vivier the ultimate honor that he would give nobody else: He puts Vivier’s name on the shoe labels with Christian Dior: “Roger Vivier created for Christian Dior.” It’s a big coup in the fashion world.
Overall, what is Roger Vivier most famed for?
Among his many successes, he's best known for the refinement of the high heel, the pilgrim buckle shoe popularized by Catherine Deneuve, the thigh-high boot popularized by Bridget Bardot and the reintroduction of the platform shoe.
Check out the slideshow of some of the shoes featured in "Roger Vivier: Process To Perfection," which is on display at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto:
This sample shoe was designed by Roger Vivier for the German tannery Heyl‐Libenau in 1934 and offers insight into the designer's earliest work. Vivier's lifelong affinity for asymmetry is also evident in these early prototypes.
This famous mule made by Roger Vivier for Christian Dior in the early 1950s features a Ruby Topaz hummingbird ornament. During World War II Roger Vivier made hats with milliner Suzanne Remy in New York and the skills he acquired can be found in his early shoes for Christian Dior. The skills Vivier learned as a milliner were put to use as he conceived of shoes whose success lay in the tension between exquisite line and heavy adornment.
This pair of shoes, designed by Vivier for Christian Dior, features a reversed dart detail as the shoes only ornamentation. Christian Dior found in Roger Vivier a designer sympathetic to his interest in tailoring and the architecture of fashion. The synergy between the two designers can be seen by looking at their creations from the early years of the 1950s.
Roger Vivier evening shoes embellished with silver thread embroidery and ostrich feathers for Delman‐Christian Dior, French, 1954. Many of Christian Dior and Roger Vivier's clients were enraptured by Dior's ornate eveningwear and Vivier's equally elaborate evening shoes.
Along with Dior, Vivier worked with master embroiderer Rébé to realise some of his most ornate designs. A pair of yellow silk shoes now held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection illustrates the collaboration between Rébé and Vivier.
The arresting embellishment of these mules is matched by their architecture. The upturned sole references the "exotic" while the sinuous curve of the famous choc heel is a thoroughly modern statement.
Vivier worked out the details of his designs on the pullovers he made. Pullovers are shoe uppers that have been pulled onto and over wooden lasts to show the design of a new style. The Bata Shoe Museum collection holds eighty pullovers by Vivier from his time with the House of Dior.
Vivier's early training in sculpture at l'Ecole des Beaux Arts found expression in the way that he sculpted the last, shaped the arch of the heel and angled tip of the toe. In 1959, Vivier created the choc heel--a shoe meant to "shock" fashion. Bruno Frisoni continues to make the heel for Roger Vivier today.
One of the most famous examples of his choc design is this shoe completely embellished with feathers from the white‐breasted king fisher. The iridescent blue feathers of this tiny bird had long been used to embellish clothing and accessories in Imperial China and their use on this shoe lent it an air of exotic decadence and "orientalism" which was the perfect foil for its remarkably contemporary silhouette.
Roger Vivier was famous for the heels he designed over the course of his career. He is closely tied to the refinement of what is today called the stiletto heel as well as the choc and comma heel. A variety of Vivier's heel designs can be seen in this drawing he did in 1963.
In 1959, the same year that Vivier designed the choc heel he also designed the Tibet heel. The Tibet heel is shaped like a small inverted pyramid and marked Vivier's emerging interest in reducing the height high heels.
This pair of shoes designed by Roger Vivier for Christian Dior is streamlined and elegant in its simplicity. Its one ornament, a floating rosette, seems to hover above the instep by use of a thin clear plastic tab.
Held in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the bottine from 1961 is one of the most famous of Vivier's designs.
Vivier's autumn/winter collection of 1962‐1963 introduced the provocative New Style heel. Described as revolutionary, it was a low yet curvy heel placed directly under the heel of the foot. Too radical for the House of Dior, in 1963 Christian Dior announced that it would not renew Vivier's contract and Vivier struck out on his own.
Many of the shoes Vivier made while working for Christian Dior were heavily embellished and the stress put on the decoration when the shoes were worn raised the issue as to whether these shoes were designed as non‐functional works of art or were indeed designed to be worn.
This pair of shoes was made by Roger Vivier in 1963, the year he opened his own couture house after a decade of designing exclusively for Christian Dior. With its dramatic ornamentation of shimmering sequins and sculpted 'comma' heel, it is a classic example of the balance between embellishment and innovative structure.
When Catherine Denueve wore a pair of Vivier's "pilgrim buckle" shoes in the 1967 movie Belle de jour, their popularity was cemented and they were christened with a new name, Belle de jour. Vivier's buckle shoes were soon found on the feet of Jacqueline Onassis and Marlene Dietrich among others. This pair of shoes came with a matching handbag that was part of Vivier's new line of purses which he began to offer in 1964.
This sandal was designed by Roger Vivier for Yves Saint Laurent's 1967 African collection. The "mask" that was designed to wrap around the shin was inspired by African art. Vivier, an avid collector of African sculpture, may have sought inspiration for the works that surrounded him at home.
As Vivier headed into older age he continued to make footwear but he increasingly gave himself over to his original love, art. Vivier began make collages. Using colored paper cut‐outs, Vivier rendered his most iconic designs in two dimensional form. Many of these artworks are held in the Bata Shoe Museum collection.