The History of Platform Shoes

In October 2017, the Museum of Modern Art opened “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” The exhibition features 112 items of clothing and accessories that have had a strong, global impact in the 20th and 21st centuries. Cedar wrote about the exhibition’s inclusion of platform shoes for Interview.

Towering shoes, so high they threaten to break an ankle, are closely associated with the late ‘90s, when Spice World was still a box office boon. Platforms, whether they are bejeweled sandals or perspex boots, actually go back a lot further. It’s an item that has transcended trend and earned its place in the annals of fashion—an ancient garment that’s been valued as both fashionable and functional, despite its apparent danger to the wearer.

“The platform shoe is so prevalent across geographies, time periods, and styles,” says Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator in MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design. “It was impossible not to include it as a typology. Garments and accessories change our shape, at times in ways that offer us power and freedom, and at others, in ways that compromise our autonomy or make us conform more closely to particular standards. Platform shoes can transform their wearers’ stature and make them more imposing—or they can almost hobble their wearers, much like stilettos, profoundly altering body posture and appearance.”

The history of the platform begins around 600 BCE; the Greeks used them in plays, to increase the height of characters. During the Middle Ages, the Venetians’ platforms were called Chopines, while the rest of Europe’s platforms were called Pattens. Both Chopines and Pattens were worn to avoid wet, rainy streets. These platforms had thick, wooden soles and various forms of leather strapping, ensuring both height and relative stability, and often high social standing.

The platform’s history in fashion began incubating in the United States, United Kingdom, and Europe from 1930-1950. Actress Marlene Dietrich had a pair designed for her in the early 1930s by Moshe (Morris) Kimel, a Jewish designer who escaped Berlin and opened his Kimel shoe factory in Los Angeles. A French footwear designer named Roger Vivier sketched a platform sandal in 1937, which Elsa Schiaparelli used in one of her collections. By the time wealthy Beverly Hills women caught on, Salvatore Ferragamo introduced The Rainbow, a platform sandal designed for American entertainer, Judy Garland, inspired by her singing “Over The Rainbow” in The Wizard of Oz. Ferragamo notably used layers of wood and cork instead of leather, an experimentation born from the effects of WWII wartime rationing.

The ’60s to ’80s brought the platform—the visual antithesis of the ’50s favorite, the stiletto—to its peak, thanks in large part to the music of this era and trendsetting boutiques like London’s Biba. Young men and women wore them to the disco, and they were dually embraced by a range of rock musicians, like Gene Simmons, David Bowie, Stevie Nicks, and Elton John, and funk musicians like George Clinton. In the early ’90s, Vivienne Westwood brought the platform back into high fashion, and by the late ’90s, the Spice Girls were making the shoes fly off of store shelves.

“Platforms are, as a typology, in constant tension between timelessness and temporality,” concludes Antonelli, summing up the shoe’s global, manifold adoptions and interpretations.

“For me, this is what modernity is all about.”

The above is abbreviated from the original story.