She made the infamous boots worn by Nancy Sinatra in the singer’s ode to female empowerment and fashion. Lady Bird Johnson, Patricia Nixon and Jacqueline Kennedy all slipped into her shoes. Saks Fifth Avenue opened an entire section dedicated to her designs. Beth Levine began as a farm girl from Long Island and she would go on to walk all over the fashion world, leaving her mark and inspiring most, if not all, of today’s big name shoe designers.
An upcoming exhibition at theLong Island Museum of American Art, History, and Carriages in Stony Brook called Beth Levine: The First Lady of Shoes takes a look at the iconic footwear, photographs, memorabilia, illustrations, film footage, and artifacts from public and private collections relating to Levine and her journey.
“I first moved to New York in the late 70s and I was a struggling shoe designer,” said Helene Verin, the curator of the exhibition. “Beth was my idol—a kind of larger than life person.”
The two would go on to become very close, their relationship shifting from mentor and mentee to one of genuine friendship until Levine’s death in 2006. Now Verin is a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and she’s continuously disappointed with her students’ lack of knowledge about her idol. “My students don’t even know who she is,” Verin said.
This exhibit is about letting people know who ran the shoe game before Manolo Blank and Christian Louboutin.
Levine was raised on her family dairy farm in Patchogue. She moved to New York City and became a shoe model and, in the process, learned all about the importance of the right fit. “Beth’s whole thing was about comfort,” Verin said.
After working for the Red Cross in World War II, she met shoe manufacturer Herbert Levine and months later the two were married.
Verin notes that Levine was fortunate to have her own factory in Brooklyn. “She would get an idea and go make it up right there.” From the 50s to the 70s, Beth designed under her husband’s label, and Herbert Levine shoes became one of the most luxurious brands of the time. She rose to prominence and became the go-to shoe designer for American first ladies and performers including Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner, Barbra Streisand, Lauren Bacall, Liza Minelli and Cher.
In 1976 the couple shut down their factory. “They didn’t want to sell the name because it was about quality. That’s why the name is not out there,” Verin said. But, even if Levine’s name isn’t well known, her designs survive. “Everyone knocks her off the most,” Verin said.
Her family also still owns the farm. They sell their vegetables in a Fire Island farm stand. Her nephew is famous Montauk photographer Bruce Weber. Long Island remains a large part of the Levine legacy and the intimacy of the project isn’t lost on Verin. “There is going to be a lot of personal programming around Beth,” she said. “There are still people lending to the exhibition that knew Beth!”
Museum goers can catch chic, whimsical and timeless Beth Levine creations at the exhibition opening August 21 and running through January 3.