My aunt, whom I’m named after, had exquisite taste in fashion. A huge supporter of the theatre, she appreciated the role that fashion played in creating drama—both on and off the stage. When we visited her home, I often made my way to her closet to look at her clothes and shoes. When I was much older, I realized that the shoes I most coveted were a pair—or at least a spectacular imitation—of Roger Vivier’s “pilgrim buckle” shoes. After Catherine Deneuve wore a pair in the 1967 movie Belle de jour, the shoes were renamed in the film’s honour. They went on to become one of the most iconic shoe styles of the ’60s. Everyone from Jacqueline Onassis to Marlene Dietrich were photographed in them.
I hadn’t thought about my Aunt Noreen’s shoes until I attended the Bata Shoe Museum’s opening gala this week for its new show, Roger Vivier: Process to Perfection. Vivier had designed the pilgrim buckle shoes to accompany Yves Saint Laurent’s autumn 1965 collection—in particular, the now iconic Mondrian dress. Several pairs are on display, along with 60-plus other artifacts on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Deutsches Ledermuseum in Germany and Roger Vivier Paris, as well as Bata’s own collection.
It’s the first exhibit in North America to showcase Vivier’s work, and it’s one that the museum’s senior curator, Elizabeth Semmelhack, says was years in the making. “When I was first hired at the museum, Mrs. Bata spent a great deal of time showing me the treasures in the collection,” explains Semmelhack. “This included 88 pullovers that Vivier created for Christian Dior. They were beautiful; they were sculptural, but I didn’t fully understand their significance. A few years later we acquired 63 of Vivier’s original unpublished illustrations. Now we had the pullovers, the illustrations and a nice selection of shoes; we were ready for an exhibit.”
The focus, however, isn’t only on the shoes. Semmelhack also wanted to highlight the man and his innovations. “Vivier was fascinated by different heel types,” she explains. “There was the choc, the New Style, the comma and, of course, the needle heel—or stiletto, as it is now called.” Semmelhack says she doesn’t prefer one heel over any other, but she is fascinated with how Vivier worked with negative space to create architecturally balanced and elegant lines. “He was able to get away with ornamentation and embellishment because the architecture of the shoes kept them from becoming too nostalgic or too twee.”
What was his next “breakout” shoe? Read on.
Vivier’s modernist sensibilities were nurtured when he studied sculpture at l’École des Beaux Arts in the mid-’20s. At the invitation of a family friend, he started working in a shoe factory in the late ’20s and was designing shoes for famous French actresses and artists, such as Mistinguett and Josephine Baker, by the early ’30s. In the ’40s, he moved to the United States to work for American shoemaker Herman Delman but returned to France after the war. By the mid-’50s, he was working with Dior. He and the famed designer shared a similar fascination with bespoke tailoring and architectural detailing. In the ’60s, Vivier owned his own boutique and went on to create some of his most innovative designs, including the thigh-high boot that Brigitte Bardot frequently wore and the buckle, or Belle de jour, shoes.
As a shoe historian, Semmelhack has her own “curated” collection of shoes at home, including her first pair of Vivier shoes, which she purchased in 2005. “I was working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York at the time, and one of my colleagues announced that there was a huge shoe sale at Saks,” she recalls. “I went down and found a pink Belle de jour shoe that fit like a glove. But there was a hitch; the salesman couldn’t find the matching shoe. I spent two hours with him looking in the trashcans and the backrooms. I said to them, ‘Look, you don’t understand: I need that shoe. I’m a shoe historian!’ His manager took my number and six months later called me to say the shoe had been found. Apparently somebody at Saks had been using it in their office as a decoration. I ran down and got them—for a quite a good price, I might add!”
Roger Vivier: Process to Perfection runs until April 2013, but the shoe artifacts will change every three months. There is also a lecture and movie series running throughout the year.
Which of these Roger Vivier heels do you feel was the most fashion forward?
1. A faux-fur shoe with the New Style heel circa 1962. The signature curvy heel, which was considered revolutionary at the time, was placed directly under the heel of the foot. (Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art; image source: Art Resource, N.Y.)
2. These mules, which Vivier designed for Dior in 1959, had upturned toes and a choc heel. (Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art; image source: Art Resource, N.Y.)
3. Needle-heel shoes with embroidered uppers that Vivier designed for Dior in 1957. (Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art; image source: Art Resource, N.Y.)
4. Comma-heeled evening shoes from Vivier’s own 1963 collection. (Image courtesy of Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada; photo: Hal Roth)