The cordwainer hall of fame


Until the nineteenth century, a cordwainer was just a humble, nameless toiler in a malodorous den whose claim to payment from his stingy or distressed patrons came last of all. In the 1750s, however, a daring Englishman surnamed Gresham put a label for the first time in a pair of green damask shoes now in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London: “Gresham/at the Crown in/York-Street/Covent Garden/London/ Removed from Tavistock Street.” A modest reminder to the owner in case she might want to order another pair.

A century later, Jean-Louis Francois Pinet, the son of a provincial shoemaker, took promotion a huge step further. He established his atelier in Paris in 1855, and gave the beau monde to understand that not only could he make shoes, he could create style. Elaborate and expensive shoes had been known for centuries, but changes in style were usually dictated by tailors as fashion evolved, or by specific needs (for example, the first heel was added to footwear by the Persian cavalry in the second century AD to keep the foot from slipping through the stirrup).

Pinet’s shoes were known for extravagant embroidery and the delicate “Pinet heel,” very similar to the heel worn by King Louis XIV of France, and it heralded the return of the high heel after decades in oblivion. More to the point, the shoes were known for being his, and his designs harmonized perfectly with the gowns by John Redfern and Charles Frederick Worth (the father of haute couture, and no mean self-promoter, either). Pinet is generally credited with being the first important “bottier,” or bootmaker; he was the first “coutourier” shoemaker who paid real attention to fit, and he made history when he designed the first ankle boot for Parisian women in the late 1800’s. He was clearly a star.

Then came the marketing. By 1932, an advertisement for Pinet’s shop in New York declared: “36 pairs of shoes only, then the design is destroyed.” The copy continued, “Made wholly by hand in Paris on American custom lasts, to fit the slender grace of the American foot.” By then he had shops in Paris, London, Berlin, and Vienna (where I have no doubt his advertising praised the slender grace of the French, English, German and Austrian foot). Today the brand, if not the family, has three shops in Paris, and one in Cannes. It is also the official distributor in Paris, Toulouse and Strasbourg of shoes by Salvatore Ferragamo.

The reason you probably have never heard of Francois Pinet, but almost certainly have heard of Ferragamo, is also the result of marketing, but more than that, of the unique genius of the cordwainer from the Neapolitan hinterland. (Ferragamo’s name is generally associated with Florence in the popular consciousness, but actually he spent more time in Hollywood than he did in the city of the divine Dante.)

By the time of his death in 1960, he possessed 369 patents for innovations in shoemaking, from the steel shank arch support to the wedge heel, and many of his designs have become icons of the 20th century. While it’s true that for centuries shoes underwent all sorts of fashions and fads, it was Ferragamo who suggested (aided by images of his glamorous Hollywood clients) that shoes were more akin to dreams than to something built to keep your feet off the gravel, concrete or mud. And his campaign proved persuasive. Ten thousand pairs of shoes either designed or owned by him are on display, with other memorabilia, in the Salvatore Ferragamo Museum in Florence.

He was also the first to pay serious attention to the foot as more than the thing that carried the shoe around. “Few realize that Ferragamo was genuinely interested in women’s comfort,” said Elizabeth Semmelhack, curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. “He took courses in biology and the structure of the human foot. With the wedge heel, he said he was trying to make an orthopedic shoe. He was trying to make a very comfortable, fashionable shoe and it just so happened he also created a fashion craze.”

One cannot fail to also acknowledge the late Roger Vivier, the “Faberge’ of footwear,” as he is sometimes clumsily called. When Dior came out with his epoch-making post-war “New Look,” Vivier’s shoes were the perfect match. And then, let history note, in 1954 he refined the stiletto heel, removing it from its late 19th-century fetish environment and placing it squarely on the feet of the most fashionable women on two continents. Of course he had exceptional female clients, from Ava Gardner to Queen Elizabeth II (he designed her coronation shoes), but I have discovered that he also shod the Beatles.

© 2020 Erla Zwingle, all rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of this article is prohibited by law.

Published: December 1, 2016