Speaking with her shoes: A footwear biography

I was truly a woman’s best friend in my heyday. I was the favorite pair of evening shoes, and a revered as a collector’s item before I was retired to this box, although I’m glad that fashion historians still appreciate my worn beauty at my advanced age. You could say I lived my life to its fullest extent, traveling and changing my career path. You look at me now in my current state and it’s clear that I was well loved and popular, with wear showing throughout – especially on my glossy black soles. I am an evening pump and saw many parties in my time. I was made between 1925 and 1935, I can’t remember the exact date anymore, but I know that I was very fashionable during the Art Deco era. I was designed by Nancy Haggerty Shoes in New York and artfully decorated with fine gold leather trim that runs around my top and creates a lattice on my front.

Shoe side

Nancy Haggerty shoe, 2015.01.006A+B, viewed from the side.

Shoe top

Pair of Nancy Haggerty shoes, 2015.01.006A+B, viewed from the top. Tagged by the FRC’s Ingrid Mida.

It seems impolite to ask for a woman’s measurements, but historians seem to make an exception when it comes to me. If you insist, here they are – My block heel measures 2.5 inches from top to bottom and about 8 inches from my heel directly to my toe. My toe is almond shaped, not overly round or pointed, and slightly upturned. Although you won’t find my size indicated anywhere, typical of my time, I am comparable to a more modern shoe marked 8 in US women’s sizing. I am principally made of black silk, worn with age, but my gold trim still manages a dull gleam. My insides are lined with beige leather and Mrs. Haggerty’s logo is stamped proudly into it. If you look carefully inside, you will see creasing and staining. What can I say? I was always the favorite. My beautiful craftsmanship and the fact that I am so structurally sound after all these years may give some clues as to what both my makers and original owner valued: quality.

Shoe sketch

Researcher’s rendering of the Nancy Haggerty shoe from the side, top and bottom, including measurements. (Sketch by Erin MacQuarrie)

After some time, I decided to retire from my life of partying, drinking and dancing and to enjoy a quieter existence at the home of a footwear collector. The collector had many pairs of worn shoes in their collection, ranging from an 1820’s Louis heeled satin slipper all the way to a Del Grande Montreal pump from 1949. A number of us were then donated anonymously to the Ryerson School of Fashion in 2015. I have tried many times to get in contact with my Haggerty sisters and have been fortunate enough to find several pairs of my contemporaries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Poor things – in all their years, they may never have traveled beyond New York! Although we seem valuable as historical artifacts, we do not fetch a high price. I found one of my sisters who had been deaccessioned from a museum collection on eBay for only $49.00 US dollars. Igor Kopytoff would argue, however, that this is merely her exchange value, and that she may have a much higher private value as an artifact of fashion history (1986:88).

A museum deaccession pair of Nancy Haggerty New York shoes being sold on eBay for $49.00 USD.

One of several pairs of Nancy Haggerty shoes that belong to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I have had the pleasure of reading Mr. Kopytoff’s work since moving to Ryerson University’s archives. It is indeed interesting to think that I too have a career and a biography of my own, just like the woman whose feet I adorned many years ago. My ownership would have represented a certain amount of privilege – far from being sensible working footwear; I am an item that represents leisure. My owner may have been what historians refer to as the “New Woman,” part of a growing number of women whose “legal and economic position had so improved that for the first time in history…[they] had become the social and economic equals of men” (Freedman 1974:373). While I do not believe, in my experience, that true equality was achieved, or has been achieved in the decades since the 1920s, women like my owner did have a greater sense of autonomy. She also began to draw her style inspiration from the Hollywood movie industry, with flapper icons such as Clara Bow rising in popularity. According to Stephen Sharot, the media defined these “New Women” of film by their sexuality and consumerism (2010:74). Imagine my owner’s delight when she found me, brand new and wrapped in tissue at the department store, and was able to purchase me with her own money, just like her film star heroines. I think I would have been well suited to the big screen.

Many young, working-class women aspired to the flapper aesthetic as a means of personal expression, but also as a way of expressing their class aspirations. Sharot writes that “Stylish clothes and the use of cosmetics were presented by the new forms of advertising as means of empowerment and self-improvement, and they were simply necessary for women who wished to obtain employment in offices or as sales clerks in department stores” (2010:75). Therefore, fashion consumption could be seen as a way for women to earn their own income through employment, but only if they looked the part. This advertising focus on women consumers made sense from a business perspective, because by 1914, shortly before my time, women were estimated to do at least 80% of the purchasing in the United States (Scanlon 2013:274). Whereas before I arrived on the scene, women were expected to spend their dollars, or the dollars allotted to them by their husband, on meeting the needs of their family, now women were encouraged by the media to invest in their own appearance.

I guess you could say that according to Kopytoff, I have lived an ideal life. I was made in glamorous New York, and to this day my fine stitching and materials have remained intact. I absolutely possessed use value and served my original wearer and I was also prized by the shoe collector who once owned me, and as a fashion artifact at my home at Ryerson University. The fact that I have not been thrown away and replaced is a testament to this. It is also a testament to my remaining exchange value, as discussed above. My design has a certain timeless appeal, since there are still modern-day styles that imitate my look. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I suppose that it’s time for a younger, thinner-heeled generation to have their fun at the parties. I hope that my sisters and I continue to be valued as artifacts of fashion history for many more decades to come.

A modern Dolce and Gabbana heel reminiscent of the much older Nancy Haggerty New York design.


Freedman, Estelle B. “The New Woman: Changing Views of Women in the 1920s.” The Journal of American History 61.2 (1974): 372-93. J Stor. Web. 6 Mar. 2016.

Kopytoff, Igor. “The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective.” Ed. Arjun Appadurai. 11 (1986): 64-91. Print.

Scanlon, Jennifer. “Main Content Area “A Dozen Ideas to the Minute”: Advertising Women, Advertising to Women.” Journal of Historical Research in Marketing 5.3 (2013): 273-90. ProQuest. Web. 6 Mar. 2016.

Sharot, Stephen. “The ‘New Woman’, Star Personas, and Cross-class Romance Films in 1920s America.” Journal of Gender Studies 19.1 (2010): 73-86. Scholars Portal Journals. Web. 6 Mar. 2016.

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