They're perhaps the most dissected element of a woman's wardrobe — shoes, the anchor of an outfit and the soul of Rachelle Bergstein's mostly lively look at the history of stilettos, sneakers and sundry other leather- and rubber-soled objects of swoon.
To be sure, a rhapsody of shoes is well-trod bookshelf terrain — indeed, Bergstein cobbles together some of her Ferragamo-to-Louboutin timeline from other shoe-centric tomes. But Women From the Ankle Down freshens up the genre with its chatty yet authoritative tone. (Bergstein, a 2003 English lit grad from Vassar, stumbles when she gets too term-paper thinky on a subject that — let's face it — is more unbuttoned that laced up.)
Trotted out chronologically are tales tracing Salvatore Ferragamo's humble beginnings in an Italian village and his emergence as Hollywood's sultan of stilettos. Lana Turner's white, open-toed pumps in The Postman Always Rings Twice? Those were his. And though Marilyn Monroe's white halter dress always nabs top fashion billing when it comes to The Seven Year Itch, Bergstein rightly pays tribute to the matching size 7AA strappy Ferragamo sandals that teeter over the iconic subway grate.
There are ripping yarns tied to other A-list leather-and-sequin creations: Judy Garland's (multiple pairs of) ruby slippers, Nancy Sinatra's go-go boots that were made for walkin'. (Bergstein, in an unfortunately rare bout of primary reporting, chatted up Sinatra, though that interview seems to have yielded little sizzle.) And the title notwithstanding, Bergstein fetes the famous footwear of a few men, including John Travolta and his Saturday Night Fever Cuban-heeled loafers — another instance of a significant celluloid shoe getting upstaged by an outfit (Travolta's white suit).
Of course, no contemporary recounting of shoes would be complete without a discussion of how Sex and the City made Manolo Blahnik a household name and cemented the idea of luxury, triple-figure footwear stashed in even upper-middle-class closets. But Bergstein spends too much time rehashing the pricey-pump-as-girl-power argument familiar to even casual consumers of recent pop culture. She has more fun rummaging through the Depression-, postwar- and disco-era wardrobes of women past.