Friday, 25 November 2011

Last-Year Reads: Shoemaker of Dreams, the autobiography of Salvatore Ferragamo

"I love feet, they talk to me." So says Salvatore Ferragamo in his autobiography Shoemaker of Dreams, first published in British in 1957. It tells the story of his rise from a poor Italian family to becoming shoemaker to the stars. It travels from Italy to America back to Italy again, all set against the turbulent history of the 1920s through to the 1940s. But most of all it talks about feet. Ferragamo is passionately obsessive about feet. He begs his parents to let him learn shoemaking, despite it being a profession looked down on at the time. He takes anatomy classes to work out how better to shoe the feet. Truly here is a man who loves feet.

The book is quite a bizarre mixture of three main things. There's the story of his business, then there's mention of the many celebrities who he has made shoes for and, finally, there are lots of ruminations about feet. You can almost picture the deal struck with his publisher: Ferragamo would be allowed to expound his foot theories in exchange for dishing some celebrity stories. I think Ferragamo ended up with the better side of that bargain. 

Before reading the book, I hadn't quite realised what a shoe maverick Ferragamo was and quite how much the modern shoe wardrobe is influenced by his designs. He worked for many of the big studios in the 1920s and the above still is taken from one of his first film commissions, Cecil B. deMille's The Ten Commandments, an Egyptian epic. Take a look at their feet, what are they wearing? Yes, Ferragamo's designs for this film was one of the things that helped popularize sandals as fashion footwear. He even notes in the book how people were gradually asking for more and more of the foot to be exposed in the sandal design - a trend that has continued through to today and the thong style of flipflops. 

Another thing to thank Ferragamo for: platforms. Previously not seen since the Renaissance, these were apparently created for performers who wanted to look taller. This particular pair dates to 1938 but it is striking how modern it still looks.

While working in Italy in the 1940s storages in material forced Ferragamo to innovate with materials such as wood, transparent paper and cork, creating 'wedgies', again a shoe that is still with us. A continual experimenter, He writes that there is "no end to the materials a shoemaker may use to decorate his creations so that every woman may be shod like a princess and a princess may be shod like a fairy queen", before going on to list the wide range of materials he has worked with to create his shoes which includes fish, snail shells and kangaroo. He goes on to say "the material I work with today is my favourite today. Its possibilities fascinate and intrigue".

via Stylehive

And so onto the names. Ferragamo seemed to make shoes for anyone with any power, influence and money in the period, including Mussolini's mistress and Eva Braun. Meanwhile, he continued his exports to America and Britain without the help of the Italian government until the war made this impossible. His political stance - or lack of it - was something he was criticised for in the aftermath of the Second World War. He merely states: "I was an innocent shoemaker who knew nothing of politics except that the actions of politicians has caused terrible harm to me and the world." Jonathan Walford's excellent Forties Fashion book mentions how Ferragamo had been inspired by Italian Futurism to use bright colours - the reds, greens and whites of the Italian flag. However, perhaps because of that movement's links to Fascism, that isn't something Ferragamo states in the book. 

Ferragamo is understandably much more comfortable talking about Hollywood stars. However, don't go expecting lots of celebrity gossip. What you do get is a long list of shoe sizes of the stars, which is strangely fascinating: Bette Davis and Carmen Miranda were a 4.5B (US size), Vivien Leigh a 5.5A, Rita Hayworth a 6A while Greta Garbo and Katharine Hepburn reached a seemingly massive 7AA. Not so big when you consider that's a UK size 5. There are a few insights into the shoe buying style of the stars: Marlene Dietrich "wears the shoes once or twice, enjoys their beauty to the full - and then casts them aside. She too looks for the beauty and the perfection of the future", whereas the divine Audrey, pictured above, "is always natural and completely unaffected, whether she is acting or buying shoes or handbags."

Ferragamo's passion and zeal for shoemaking shines through his book, and what he achieved for his profession is really remarkable, not least in some of the stunning designs he left with us. He died in 1960s but, if he was still around, I'm sure he'd have some very stern words to say about the quality of high street shoes, and the damage it was doing to all of our feet, but I can't help but think he'd rejoice in the array of colour and huge amount of styles we get to pick from today. 


  1. I got a book about him a few Christmases ago!

  2. Ah, which one Tamsin? Was it one of the glossy coffee book style ones?


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