Get the Idea, Boys?

Mae West’s Shoes

There is no mistaking the walk. It’s a saunter, a prowl, a determined stride across the screen that commands the viewer’s attention. It is the walk of a self-assured woman who knows what she wants and won’t let anything, or anyone, stand in her way. It is a march of pure attitude, sexual voracity, and swagger. It is a walk that could only belong to Mae West.

With her pre-Hays Code wicked wit, devilish smile, and a naughty glint in her eye, West was the vaudeville star and Hollywood icon synonymous with scandal and sex. Glamorous, yes, but West was also a fiercely intelligent, dedicated comedian, best-selling author, and potent alpha female who understood the power of image and the allure of attraction. Physical beauty, especially in a town like Hollywood, has always functioned as a currency. Careers often rested on studio demands and the public’s preconceptions of beauty, and West understood this better than most. West was unique because of her image, her wit, and her walk. 

West’s walk is part of her legacy. The perfect balance of attitude and physics, it has been replicated by everybody from drag queens to Madonna. The latter’s notable appreciation of West has influenced her persona, costumes, and performances. Emulate, yes, but there was something about the walk that made it unique to West, for one—or should we say pair?—of specific reasons. What was West’s secret? 

The answer could be found in 2014, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where a pair of West’s shoes were displayed amongst an array of silver-screen costumes from the 1930s and 40s. These were not any ordinary pair of heels. West wore customized “shoes within shoes” that measured an astonishing 9.5 vertical inches and were made specifically for their famous wearer. So unusual were her shoes that they acquired the nickname “Double Deckers” from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) during their 2016 footwear exhibition. West owned many pairs, in various styles, and we never saw her without them.

“The hemline of the wearer’s dress must be designed at such a length that it covers the upper portion of the shoe,” observed Charles Carballo of the website Footwear News, “lest the illusion be discovered.” The illusion is perfect: Hollywood’s very own magic slippers. “I have never in my life have seen another pair of shoes like this,” remarked FIDM curator Kevin Jones. “She [West] may have developed this [the shoes] with a cobbler, and she likely worked with a dressmaker because it had to cover the hemlines.” 

The power of clothing, shoes, and accessories is notoriously well known. Even cosmetics imbue strength to their wearer. Red lipstick, for example, a noted cosmetic weapon for centuries, is a well-documented to both embolden and empower. Sometimes the power comes from concealed items, like the shoulder-padded jackets worn by Joan Crawford, accredited to costume designer Gilbert Adrian, to accentuate her slight frame and enhance the commanding presence of her characters.West, however, had a slightly different way of flaunting her sartorial potency. These heels would become another tool for her to wield, and a part of cinematic and personal magic. Wearing them ensured she never broke her “Mae West” persona. The exhibition curator, Emily Stoehrer, reiterated that “under a long dress, you wouldn’t notice that these shoes were being worn.” West’s long gowns would shield the public glare from all but the occasional peep: “silver toes would just peep out through the hem of the dress.” 

I first learned the secrets of West’s walk on a televised biography where clips of Hollywood actors’ beloved movies interspersed with insights from film scholars and critics. It was on one of these shows where I first heard about West’s height, documented to be around five feet, but varying slightly depending on the source. In certain circles, it remains a lesser-known fact about the star, primarily due to the combination of West’s vivaciousness and the enchantment of costuming; long gowns designed to conceal all but her toes. All too often, we make assumptions on a personality’s height, primarily when their reputation and character is “larger than life.” If this were true, West would have stood at over six feet tall. 

“A five-foot-tall woman in four-inch heels has increased her physical stature by 6.6 percent,” writes Summer Brennan in her brilliant book High Heel. “Not quite the average 8 percent size advantage that men have over women on average, but she is getting close.” As Marilyn Monroe famously said, “give a girl the right shoes and she can conquer the world.”

Fascinated by West’s footwear ever since learning her secret, I eventually saw them for myself in 2016 on a trip to the Hollywood Museum. In the old Max Factor building located just off the famous Boulevard, with history embedded into the golden stars that make up the sidewalk, two pairs of West’s shoes reside. Even in my position as a devotee of old Hollywood movies and glamour—even as a scholar who has written and lectured on Italian fashion courtier Elsa Schiaparelli’s Shoe Hat—I was spellbound by their effect, completely awestruck at this feat of engineering; something I had heard about, but never seen, as if they were urban legend. It’s impossible to separate the footwear from the woman who once wore them. 

To see West without these shoes would be akin to see her stripped bare, naked, not herself; this is footwear entwined with personality, character, and image. Aside from masking her petite stature, these Pepenie heels allowed West to hone that trademark sidle across the stage, a manoeuvre as synonymous with West as her naughty smile. She was an expert at using every inch of her body as an extension of her character. Even in her private life, away from photographers’ lenses, the movie cameras, and the gaze of adoring fans, West would always be “on,” even for herself, staying true to her self-serving image. I once read a description of her “gliding” into a room. West knew the power of her walk, and in the movies, the way a woman walks can prove central to her character.

In I’m No Angel (1933)—also written by West—she plays Tira, the glittering carnival queen in “Big Bill Barton’s Wonder Show.” Barton, the manager, uses his star attraction to lure more seedy men into the establishment as if she were a trophy and a prize. “Over there, over there, Tira, the beautiful Tira, dancing, singing marvel of the age, supreme flower of feminine pulchritude. The girl who discovered you don’t have to have feet to be a dancer”—a line filled with both subtext and secrecy. 

West’s entrance as Tira is every bit as glittering as her gown. She saunters on stage, hand on hip, purring to her leering audience. “No wisecracks, now,” she says. “A penny for your thoughts … get the idea, boys … ya follow me?” The power of burlesque, the dance of illusion. West gives them the show they want while remaining entirely in control. West sends out an innuendo-laced invitation to chase her, but she knows her value as a commodity, and how to play this gullible crowd at their own game. “Am I makin’ myself clear, boys?” she states sauntering her way offstage. “Suckers,” she smirks under her breath. 

We don’t see West’s shoes, of course, because that would break the spell. In his 2001 book, Feet-ishism, Hans-Jürgen Döpp charts the sexual significance of high-heeled shoes, and the fashion’s role in the rise of foot fetishism. Döpp notes the thrill some would experience from peeking a shoe underneath a woman’s long dress and the “fiendish joy” of stealing a glance of leg and shoe. We may glimpse a toe, peek a heel, but West’s feet are always covered; a concealed secret underneath.  

In High Heel, Brennan guides us through the ubiquity of heels from mythology to folk tales, fairy tales, history, movies, and sociology, tracing and challenging our relationship with these items pleasure and pain, and the stigma that surrounds them. Silver slippers may remind us of the classic fairy tale Cinderella, of glass slippers, fairy godmothers and the servant girl who wins the heart of the Prince. However, before it became a much-loved Disney movie, the fairy tale was much darker. “Mae West’s affection for plots that mimic “Cinderella,’” Emily Wortis Leider notes in her biography of West, “tracing an ascent from sneered-upon lowdown-ness to palatial splendor, springs directly from her own life experience.” Leider acknowledges that West overcame her lack of privilege and learned how to play the vamp and “teasing seductress.” She learned very early to become one. 

We only ever see West’s toe, but we see the shoes of other classic Hollywood icons. Heels have become inadvertently become entwined with Marilyn Monroe’s various characters, as she utilizes them in the context of the movies. In Some Like It Hot, she makes her iconic entrance on a station platform, strutting and wiggling as she hurries to catch the train. As the movement reverberates through her famous hourglass shape, Jack Lemmon excitedly proclaims, “she moves like Jell-O on springs.” Monroe, like West, was incredibly self-aware and knew the power of her image, and heels often became a part of her character. “A lady never admits that her feet hurt,” she acknowledges in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, her near-sighted character even tripping up on a fashion stage. In The Seven Year Itch, Monroe kicks off her heels in her awed neighbor’s apartment. Later in the iconic movie, she stands over the subway grate for “that scene.” As the breeze lifts her dress, the camera focuses on her feet. She is a fantasy in white stilettos. 

Nothing is made of West’s footwear in movies because that would shatter the illusion. In I’m No Angel, we are treated to her Travis Banton costumes shimmying and glittering with every movement she makes. When she appears on stage, we note her dress is accentuated with corset detail, and our eyes focus on the detail on her bust. She is fully clothed and completely covered, but the outfit provocatively reveals and alludes to something far more risqué. It is a garment with the same personality as its wearer. As Schiaparelli believed, what you don’t reveal is far more enticing that what is on display.

Hollywood has always influenced fashion both on and off stage, and Banton’s outfit obliquely inspired Madonna’s conical bra. Designed by Jean-Paul Gauthier, the design gained infamy during her 1990s Blonde Ambition tour. The on-stage costumes were considered some of the most daring of Madonna’s career, with Gauthier hailed for redesigning the female silhouette. The designer even marketed his new fragrance in a three-dimensional torso bottle.

Was this a daring design? No, not really, because it another designer got there first, thanks in no small part to West.

In 1953, Schiaparelli required a design for her new perfume, “Shocking!” For the task, she turned to her friend and fellow Italian artist Leonor Fini. A painter, designer and author known for her dynamic depictions of self-assured women, sphinxes, and cats, Fini chose to base the design on West’s curves, significantly the dressmaker’s dummy Schiaparelli had used to make West’s costumes for Every Day’s a Holiday (1937). Gauthier’s bottle was not that daring: Schiap, Fini and West, did it first.

In her autobiography, Schiaparelli wrote about the time “Mae West came to Paris. She was stretched out on the operating-table of my workroom and measured and probed with care and curiosity.” Schiaparelli’s exaggerated life story is short but fantastical in detail, with plenty of extra details and insights into West. “She [West] had sent me all the most intimate details of her famous frame and for the greater accuracy a plaster statue of herself quite naked in the pose of the Venus de Milo,’ she continues. Like Max Factor’s contouring of actors’ faces to enhance cheekbones and slim down noses, West’s clothes would often deploy a similar technique in times of fluctuating weight.

Schiaparelli continues by offering some insider information of West’s Hollywood process:

She was preparing a new film and from the start everything kept changing. Jo Swerling had first written it as a drama under the title of Frivolous Sally, but Mae, deciding otherwise, changed the name to Sapphire Sal. Swerling, in disgust, hung his manuscript to a tree for the children to shoot at … Mae spent ten days in bed rewriting it, and then cabled me to make her dresses.

West and Schiaparelli were never in the same room for the fittings, and unfortunately, the designs did not appear in the movie. Due to West’s fluctuating weight, Paramount had the costumes remade in darker colours, and West was instructed to recline, sit, or remain still on the screen. In a twist of irony, having based West’s costumes on the fashions of the turn of the century, Paris during 1937 would now be influenced by West’s on-screen costumes. 

Imagine instructing West to remain still on screen? 

In the early 1930s, Salvador Dalí painted Mae West’s Face Which Can Be Used as a Surrealist Apartment. The painting isolated and individualized West’s features to form the layout to “a Surrealist suite.” Two individual pictures were eyes, her nose was the central fireplace, and her full lips were a plump sofa. Simon Louvish, West’s biographer, describes the painting as “a stage” that “is ready for the play, the divan for romance. You can have it all, Mae suggests, but perhaps only in illusion.” The following year Edward James, the British Surrealist patron, commissioned the sofa to be designed as a piece of furniture, immortalizing West even further. Lips as art, shoes as sculpture: the architecture of an icon from head to toe. 

Shoes determine how a wearer moves, how she carries herself, her attitude, and even how she is perceived. There is an argument both for them as empowering, and against them as inhibiting. Shoes will restrict the wearer if too high, or if the heel is stiletto thin. More of a platform, West’s Pepine heels feed into the characters she plays, which are all, virtually, iterations of West. We refer to West as a hunting cat, but rarely a sex kitten or even feline, as we would a more gamine beauty. Feline is a word we attribute to Lauren Bacall: cat-like, slinking, and shimmying her way into our and Bogey’s hearts in To Have and Have Not. West shimmies with every inch of her vaudeville attitude, because a stage actor must use every tool at their disposal, including their bodies.

I have often wondered if the shoes ever hurt West’s feet.

In “Undone: High Maintenance,” Mary Karr’s offers a scathing down with heels! rally cry, confronting the historical stigma of heels wielding power, fantasy, and fetish. Karr writes:

For I was a slave to the desire that rules our libidinal culture. And an elongated foot and leg just announces, Hey, y’all, there’s pussy at the other end of this. Yet every pair of excruciating heels also telegraphs a subtle masochism: i.e., I am a woman who can not only take an ass-whipping; to draw your gaze, I’ll inflict one on myself.

Karr’s description is a perfect summation of heels association with sex, and the conflict between pleasure and pain. The surrealists were fascinated by hands for a similar reason: they have the potential to produce both pleasure and pain in intense forms.

West was undoubtedly capable of issuing an ass-whipping, but it’s doubtful she ever admitted it was to herself.

“Even before she moves, a woman in high heels has transformed her body,” noted the fashion historian Valerie Steele. “She looks taller and thinner. Her secondary sexual characteristics are flagrantly emphasized, while her legsthe pathway to the genitals—are as long as Bambi’s. As the leg muscles tighten, the calves appear shapelier. And because they are at an angle, her feet look smaller and more pointed.” West’s legs were always covered, and even on the rare occasion when she is wearing “ordinary” heels, she is sitting. Did we ever see her walk in a regular shoe?

Alison Lurie has noted how high-heeled footwear provides multiple sexual signifiers for many people. The various reasons for the appeal vary, but is at least “partly because they [high heels] make the legs look longer,” while “an extended leg is the biological sign of sexual availability in several animal species.” The result is what anthropologists call the “courtship strut.” We see this strut, explicitly, with West. Footwear will influence how a person walks, and heels are notorious for slowing the pace. As Lurie provocatively suggests, wearing heels arouses desire “perhaps because it guarantees that no woman wearing them can outrun a man who is chasing her.” 

We might say West initiated the chase, but even in heels, you would have a hard time catching her.

West was a persona of contraction, often described as bawdy, camp, brash, and other such dynamic adjectives. Always “on” and maintaining her on-screen persona, she is best remembered as the Hollywood star who purred suggestively at Cary Grant in She Done Him Wrong (1933). However, West lived a life of non-excess, dominated by dedication to her craft and devoid of stimulants. She was an illusionist of artifice. I stood in the Hollywood Museum, thinking about how her shoes served as the opposite of Schiaparelli’s Shoe Hat, an unusual piece of headwear and, basically, an upside-down high-heeled shoe. Made in both black and her trademark shocking pink, Schiaparelli intended the item to proudly display on the body in an unconventional and contrary way; a contrast to the secrecy of what would become a static part of West’s everyday costume. 

Later in I’m No Angel, West walks across the room, from one door of her bedroom to just off-camera. It is the purest six seconds of West you are likely to see, hugely memorable when we think of her persona. With one hand on the hip of her fitted black gown, she sashays across the stage and says the five immortal words, “Bellulah, peel me a grape.” West could inject attitude into any sentence, and this is a magnificent example of her potency. Combined with her flawless stage exit, we have the ideal encapsulation of West and one of the most strident examples of her walk. It is impossible not to be won over by this formidable powerhouse of attitude—even if we never see the 9-inch Pepine heels. 

Sabina Stent