Technology and Tinseltown: The legacy of Salvatore Ferragamo

5 December 2012

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Fashion historian Amber Butchart will be discussing the iconography and cultural history of shoes, from classical Greece to glam rock, at On Pointe this Thursday – part of our Rhythm is a Dancer series. Here, she shows how the history of one of Hollywood’s most fashionable shoemakers can tell us about class, prestige, gender and power, as well as the innovations that drive the evolution of design.

Ferragamo is one of the most coveted footwear brands on the red carpet, yet few people know that the association with the film industry stretches right back to the silent era. Salvatore Ferragamo’s career spanned the Golden Age of Hollywood. He forged early links with the Dream Factory; he moved from Italy to the USA at a young age and bought the ‘Hollywood Boot Shop’ in Santa Barbara in 1919. The company did so well under his guidance that he opened a branch in Hollywood in 1923, where he remained until 1927, when he returned to Italy and started his own company.

His time spent among the glitterati of the silent era certainly paid off, and throughout the rest of his life he was known for his strong ties to Hollywood. In 2006, long after the death of the founder, the company was even awarded the Rodeo Drive Walk of Style Award for its perpetual contributions to the worlds of fashion and cinema.

But Ferragamo was not one to ride on the coat-tails of his famous clientele. He was obsessed with making shoes that were both beautiful and comfortable, and while the former came easily, he studied anatomy to gain a greater understanding of how to increase the latter. He used plumb-lines – previously the preserve of architects and engineers – to establish where the most support was needed in the shoe, which he discovered was the arch of the foot. He developed specialist steel shanks, which he patented in 1929 and 1958, that kept his shoes very light but gave added strength, while other shoemakers at the time were using card or leather.

Ferragamo’s return to Florence in the late 1920s sparked an interest in unconventional fabrics. The city was celebrated for its manufacture of straw, which inspired Salvatore to revive its use in shoe design. Plant fibres have long been used in shoe construction, but by the early 1930s had fallen out of favour, superseded by hard-wearing materials such as leather and kidskin. His ‘Pompeian by Ferragamo’ range was launched in 1930 using woven raffia – from the leaves of an east African palm – for uppers.

Ferragamo’s desire to innovate stepped up a notch in the wake of the Great Depression. By the early 1930s his business faced bankruptcy, and sanctions placed on Italy after Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 ensured that the shoe-buying public were certainly not in the financial position to afford hand-crafted luxury goods. In the run-up to World War II, various materials that were vital for shoemaking became scarce as they were commandeered for military use. The story goes that Salvatore bought a box of chocolates for his mother and became entranced with the strong, brightly coloured transparent cellophane they were wrapped in. He began experimenting and soon incorporated it into his designs.

As steel was reappropriated for the war effort, and increasingly difficult to obtain owing to economic sanctions, Ferragamo needed to find a suitable replacement for his patented steel shanks. Using Sardinian cork, Ferragamo was able to fill in the space between the sole and the heel, creating extra height with comfort. Not seen in shoe design since ancient Greece, the corked wedge went on to become one of the fashion triumphs of the 1940s.

The career of Salvatore Ferragamo highlights the importance of technological innovation, yet not at the expense of the fantastical dream-weaving side of fashion. The company’s affiliations with Hollywood last to this day, and the eponymous museum in Florence is a dedicated showspace for his iconic designs. His story is also a reminder that fashion, and design in general, never exists outside of contemporary politics and culture. The history of innovation is intrinsically bound to the continual desire to adapt and survive.

Read more of Amber’s work at Theatre of Fashion.