By John Paul Jang, Monday, March 21, 2022
These open-toe wedge sandals were once owned by American artist Yeffe Kimball (1914-1978). They were designed by an American shoemaker with conscious artistic decisions to express a break with traditional women’s shoe ware and their role during World War II, consisting of motifs inspired by ancient Greek designs. The designer incorporated societal desire by combining wedge heels and Greek symbols of victory. Much has been written about their owner Kimball by scholars such as Bill Anthes and Sarah Anne Stolte in recent years. But how did she express herself in daily life through her fashion choices?
The imagery of the figures in these sandals resembles that of Greek vases containing red-figure techniques: a glazing technique invented in 530-525 BCE in Corinth. In this technique, the figures were left as the earthy color of the clay, and details were added in a black glaze. These sandals only mimic the visual representation of the ancient Greek technique because the designs are stitched on. The figures depict armored warriors with courageous and active stances. Images of Greek victory were a prevalent theme in art in the 5th century BCE, such as those that appear in Terracotta Nolan amphora, ca. 480-470 BCE at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The scene depicts a Greek victory over the Persians, which was a unique theme as mythological battles were a dominantly popular theme during the time. The scene on the sandals also mirrors ancient sculptures such as those depicted on the Temple of Aphaia on the island of Aegina, created around the same time in 480 BCE.
The blue and white colors of the wedge heels also have a symbolic character beyond its connection to modern-day Greece. Azure blue and white are the national colors of Greece as they appear in its national flag. Blue and white appear in the symbol of the United Nations established on October 24, 1945, which became a symbol of international peace and security. The artist expressed the desire for peace and unity during the turbulent time of World War II.
Wedge heels were invented by Italian fashion designer Salvatore Ferragamo (1898-1960) in 1936. In the 1930s and 1940s, shoes that revealed the toes were uncommon as they were considered immodest. The outbreak of WWII led to the shortage of materials such as leather, resulting in it only being used exclusively for soldiers’ boots. While felt, help, straw, and textiles became common materials for shoes, the invention of wedge heels provided more comfort than other kinds of women’s shoes, such as oxford heels and pumps. Wedge heels allowed women to do “man’s work” and perform masculine jobs while allowing themselves to have femininity and return to the pre-war roles. While we may not be able to answer why Yeffe Kimball chose to wear such a pair, the sandals are a testament to her complex identity.
Anthes, Bill. “Becoming Indian: The Self-Invention of Yeffe Kimball,” In Native Moderns. American Indian Painting, 1940–1960, edited by Nicholas Thomas, 117-142 (Duke University Press, 2006).
O’Keeffe, Linda. Shoes: A Celebration of Pumps, Sandals, Slippers and More, New York, Workman, 1996.
Olds, Lauren. World War II and Fashion: The Birth of the New Look. Constructing the Past, vol. 2, no. 1, ser. 6, 2001, 47–53.
Stolte, Sarah Anne. “Hustling and Hoaxing: Institutions, Modern Styles, and Yeffe Kimball’s ‘Native’ Art,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal (2019) 43 (4): 77–92.
About the Author:
John Paul Jang serves as the Senator of the Art History and Museum Professions Program. She is the Student Chair of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences DEI Committee, and is the founder of the Art Historian and Museum Professional Association (AHMPA).
Current Favorite Reading or Art Exhibition:
I was impressed to see Sophie Tauber-Arp: Living Abstraction at MoMA (Nov 21, 2021–Mar 12, 2022). Beyond her avant-garde craftsmanship discussed in Professor Weinstein’s Dada & Surrealism class, I saw her playful experiments in colors and geometric composition.