I have been collecting vintage and other interesting artistic shoes for a long time. Suddenly this summer many people became interested in my shoe collection. I had displayed bits of it in the past ~ like 20 pieces by a particular designer as an example ~ but never the entire collection. In fact I do not even know how many total pairs I have! I have been collecting for years, have moved a couple of times, have many carefully packed up in archival wrappings and boxes and have lost count of the number I have accumulated. I have an interesting array with fine examples from many classic designers.
I know I have over 1,000 pairs. Honestly, they don’t take up that much room when they are packed away. Unpacked and stacked about to be sorted out and photographed is another matter! There have been shoes everywhere this summer for over a month! I am wishing I were not living and working in the same space, but that isn’t an option!
So, the time in my shoe collecting has finally come, to photograph them all, post many of them on my blog with descriptions and as much information as can be found about them and the designers and craftsmen who made them. Documenting a collection of this size is a daunting job! I know because I have now begun!
I was contacted a little over a month ago by an institution interested in using about 300 pairs of my vintage shoes and 50 of my vintage handbags for a project. This required unpacking and choosing many examples from the collection, then photographing them, first in a rather quick way, so that choices of which ones to use could be made, then photographing them more professionally. It turned out to be a really big job! One that took over my entire living and working space for weeks! As well as the majority of my time. Actually, it turned out being a complete nightmare! After a month of planning and emailing and co-ordinating the requesting party postponed their project indefinitely for what they termed “internal reasons.” This was inconvenient, but not all bad. Because the documentation and sorting process had been jump started and having gotten so far into it there were only two choices: continue or abandon the project I had finally undertaken partway through.
Of course I decided to continue it on my own. I had learned through this process that the only way I can really do anything of this sort with it in the future, or even share it through my blog online, is to document the entire collection thoroughly and properly so that other interested people can see what I have. It will obviously be much easier for me to do so if I already have the entire collection photographed and inventoried. Then I will be able to send people directly to my blog to access my shoes and bags in whatever way I have chosen to display them and I won’t be in the kind of frenzy that had ensued dealing with the party above.
Fortunately I also have a friend, Fredric Lehrman, who is willing to help with some of the photography, but I had to move on this while he was available to assist. Thus we have been overwhelmingly busy with this for the last few weeks. So much so that it has eaten heavily into my blogging time which I feel badly about!
Yesterday we finished up with three solid weeks of day in and day out shoe photography. Unfortunately we were only able to scratch the surface of documenting the entire collection so far. We are photographing my vintage handbag collection as well for the same purpose. It is only about a third the size of the shoe collection, but is still substantial. We switched back and forth between shoes and purses to prevent boredom. My house become a photo studio with photo equipment and piles of shoes and purses absolutely everywhere! It is an interesting but challenging undertaking!
Yesterday I sent the photographer home with his pro studio’s worth of lights, seamless papers, rolls, cameras, tripods, ladders and other equipment which had taken over my living room, dining room and kitchen for weeks! I am on the road to putting away about 300 pairs of shoes and cleaning up some. Then regrouping and beginning to post and write about the now photographed items in the collection. Wow! This is intense!
I must express much thanks to Fredric Lehrman for his patience and days and days of work bringing photographic equipment to my house and setting it up and taking thousands of pictures. All for his love of shoes! Amazing! It was fun for me to work with a professional photographer, get his input, and to be honest, get help with a project of this magnitude! Sometimes we experimented together with wild ideas like photographing fruit with shoes and got spectacular results which I will post for you to see! I think we were both tired and hungry when we came up with that one, but it was well worth the deviation from our main course! Something we both realized we would not have been allowed to experiment with had we been under the strict direction of the previously mentioned project photo editor! Thank you Fredric! For doing this and for being creative and open minded. I got tired and hungry but I had a good time!
I know a lot of collectors of all kinds of things and I know that most of them have not done anything like this with their collections. This part is the work! Not the fun! The fun is hunting down the stuff, finding something truly amazing and acquiring it. I also enjoy restoring and refurbishing things if need be and, finally, wearing it if the shoe fits!
Just doing this portion of the project we have learned a lot! Every pair of shoes is different. Some are very photogenic, some are downright unphotogenic and some fall in the middle. Often a shoe that is very attractive in person is hard to capture in any attractive way through a photograph. Each had to be accessed individually and experimented with. Some had to be reshot the next day. I decided to stop shooting for now and sort out what we’ve done, write about some of them for a while, see what I am getting into and what changes might need to be made. This is one of those learn as you do experiences! Life seems to be full of those!
My goals are different than other shoe photography I often see. I want to show the styles of the shoes, but I also want to show the character, to photograph them as art objects, sculptures when applicable, capture their moods and sometimes show how they have been loved and worn, or saved carefully, or enjoyed through use. Many of the shoes in my collection are worn ~ have been used. They are, after all, often used shoes, mostly vintage shoes, and most often not brand new ones. They are almost always old. some have never been worn and were meticulously saved, while some have been restored for use and given new lives. All in all they are now in fabulous condition considering their age. It is work but it is also a real pleasure to get them all out and analyze them like this again.
I’ve never looked at this collection en mass before. I acquired them bit by bit, over about 2 and a half decades and put them away as I did so. This is the first time I will have gone through all of them! It is an amazing experience which I hope to share to some extent with those who read my blog. Interestingly, I realized recently that this was a possibility that did not exist when I began to rescue, collect, restore and save the shoes! If it had I would have been working on this gradually all along instead of saving up the work for such a giant blitz! I feel bad that I have to do it all at once since it is such a huge job, but I feel good that at last there is such a thing as the internet now to share it on!
Originally I collected shoes only in my own size ( that is 7.5 Med.) that I could also wear. I had to limit myself somehow as I do not have endless storage! Sometimes I would find a fabulous design in a shoe from, say, the 1940’s or 50’s and I would have to resole it or almost completely redo the uppers to rescue the fabulous design for myself to wear. I want to show how I have done this and discuss it so that other people can see how it is done and hopefully save some fabulous old shoes for themselves if they find them. (Or, if they don’t want them, send them on to me to add to this collection.) Some of my most beautiful shoes now looked quite terrible when I first discovered them.
This collection is about shoes as wearable and enjoyable art. It is about good and spectacular design – some examples are originally very expensive, some not so, but all are special in my personal opinion as examples of interesting shoes. It is a unique collection. Through this experience I have learned that there are other large shoe collections in the world, but not another that includes this exact combination of particular shoes! Everyone with a serious shoe collection has something very different from that of the last serious shoe collector or the next. It is a fascinating subject. I began, for instance, to collect shoes I could actually wear and would eliminate shoes that were not my size or were uncomfortable. I have found that there are men who have accumulated large collections of women’s shoes with different criterion. There are some of these whose collections are spectacular to look at but essentially unwearable. What would they know? After all they cannot possibly wear them to try them out! As collectors we come at our collecting from our individual desires and perspectives. Collecting beautifully designed and constructed shoes is all about desire.
My collection, The Lady Violette Shoe Collection, is meant to be enjoyed for its beauty and practical utilitarian shoe design as well. Some shoes are colorful and ornate. Some are simple and unique. Many are extraordinarily elegant. In exploring this documentation process we learned that many books and calenders and photo exhibits of shoes are done in brilliant colors to show garishly bright and ornately decorated shoes against white backgrounds. Such shoes are showiest and easiest to photograph. Brightly colored shoes however, do not always accurately document the actual shoes real people found most elegant or most wearable during certain fashion or historical time periods. In contrast to what is often chosen to photo document and publish in the the majority of illustrated shoe collections the majority of shoes actually made, used and enjoyed as real functional shoes have almost always been black as the first choice and brown as the second. The reasons for this are, of course, that the black shoes almost always make the foot and leg look its best, go best with most clothing, are easily the most wearable and practical and are actually often the most flattering and attractive. Black and brown leathers are most common and most popular as well. Historically brown shoes followed black in terms of numbers produced and in popularity.
The Lady Violette Shoe Collection just naturally evolved for this very reason with the greatest numbers of black shoes, followed by brown shoes in the second greatest number, then eased into all kinds of other pretty and interesting dramatic colors. I love them all! But many of the black ones remain the most supremely elegant, flattering and exotic. And the brown ones are often the most luxuriant in alligator, snakeskin,cork, furs and other rare natural materials. Thus I want to feature the blacks and browns for their exquisite design features and extraordinarily wearability as well as all the other shoes in the dramatic colorations and combinations I have found. I am willing to experiment to find ways to present the black and brown shoes properly in interesting photos rather than omit them in favor of only brightly colored ones. That said, I hope to be able to give all the colors including black and brown equal exposure.
Documenting The Lady Violette Shoe Collection and choosing which shoes to photograph, and deciding how to style and present them myself looks like it will turn out to be the best way to present and share it with other people. Doing it myself and therefore being in control of the process I can experiment or take off in new directions without having to be restricted by other people’s formats, deadlines, or budgets limiting me! One example I discovered was that few if any other photographers utilized the designer’s labels or signatures on the inside lining of the shoes! The signatures are often beautiful and not only credit and designate the designer of the shoe, but can help identify the time in a designer’s career the shoe was created, or what store it was made for, or whether or not it was a collaboration between a clothing and a shoe designer for a particular collection. All of this detail and information is of great interest to fashion and shoe historians as well as regular people who are just interested in shoes. We spent half a day photographing several designer shoe labels as an experiment and the results are really interesting. Now we are going to try to do it on every pair.
Almost everyone seems to be interested in shoes! During the last month I have mentioned my shoe collection and what I am doing documenting it now to my girl friends, my grocer, my gardener, the couple who own a local wine and chocolate shop, my hat designer friend (who is asking me to document her hats next!), even my son’s friends, and everyone is interested in seeing the shoes. They all sigh and pause for a moment, then say, “Oh, you must show me, I love shoes!” Who would have known? Making my collection accessible to other people will be interesting and fun I am sure! All kinds of people I would not have expected to be intrigued by shoes will undoubtedly come forward and tell me they, too, love shoes as the works of art they are!
Photo credits Fredric Lehrman with styling by Violette de Courcy unless otherwise noted.