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Women from the Ankle Down: The Story of Shoes and How They Define Us Paperback – 17 Jun 2013

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Product details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (17 Jun. 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061969680
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061969683
  • Product Dimensions: 13.5 x 1.7 x 20.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,569,803 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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“A fleet-footed social history.” (Liesl Schillinger, New York Times)

“A lively look at the history of stilettos, sneakers and sundry other leather- and rubber-soled objects of swoon.” (Olivia Barker, USA Today)

“If style defines the woman, and shoes a woman’s style, then ooh la la, here’s the definitive history and guide—everything from Chinese bound feet to Ferragamo, from Hollywood favorites to running up one’s credit card on the sine qua non of fashion.” (Mireille Guiliano, author of French Women Don't Get Fat)

“If you could glimpse the passing parade of the last hundred years or so from behind a slightly raised curtain, you’d have a pretty good idea of what’s going on in this richly anecdotal history of shoes.” (Amanda Lovell, More Magazine)

“Every woman who loves her shoes should read this book—hell—every man who loves women’s shoes should read this book….Informative, interesting, and just plain fun.” (New York Journal of Books)

“[Bergstein’s] entertaining book wears its research as lightly as a pair of strappy sandals.” (Tricia Springstubb, Cleveland Plain Dealer)

“Fun.” (Susannah Calahan, New York Post)

“At last someone has dared to probe one of the most mystifying phenomena in our culture: what’s the deal with women and shoes? Rachelle Bergstein starts from the ground up and tells us—with wit and brio—a lot about society from an unusual and original perspective.” (Ron Rosenbaum, author The Shakespeare Wars and How the End Begins:The Road to a Nuclear World War III)

“As a woman who walks, I’ve often wondered why I don’t wear more sensible shoes. Now I know. Rachelle Bergstein has written a compulsively readable history: it won’t keep you from buying an absurdly uncomfortable and expensive pair, but it will make you understand why you’re doing it.” (Ruth Reichl, author of Garlic and Sapphires)

“[An] engaging, toe-to-heel study....From flats a la Audrey Hepburn, Keds and white go-go- boots, Tommy-era platforms, and Jane Fonda’s Reebok Freestyles, to Sex and the City’s pricey Manolo Blahniks and Jimmy Choo’s, Bergstein ably runs the gamut of styles over the decades…” (Publishers Weekly)

“An illuminating study of the history of women’s shoes in the 20th century….Wickedly provocative.” (Kirkus)

“An entertaining journey through the social history of shoes and the people who have worn them....Well-written and well-referenced….Recommended to all fashion followers as well as those who enjoy the ankle-down approach to studying our high-end material culture.” (Holly Hebert, Library Journal)

“Engaging….A charmingly interwoven story of the past 100 years, detailing a bit of the psychology behind different styles as well as the fame that drives the fates of a variety of soles and heels.” (Booklist)

From the Back Cover

What is it about a pair of shoes that so enchants women of all ages, demographics, political affiliations, and style tribes? Part social history, part fashion record, part pop-culture celebration, Women from the Ankle Down seeks to answer that question as it unfolds the story of shoes in the twentieth century.

The tale begins in the rural village of Bonito, Italy, with a visionary young shoemaker named Salvatore Ferragamo, and ends in New York City with a fictional socialite and trendsetter named Carrie Bradshaw. Along the way it stops in Hollywood, where Judy Garland first slipped on her ruby slippers; New Jersey, where Nancy Sinatra heard something special in a song about boots; and the streets of Manhattan, where a transit strike propelled women to step into new cutting-edge athletic shoes. Featuring interviews with designers, historians, and cultural experts, and a cast of real-life characters, from Marilyn Monroe to Jane Fonda, from Gwen Stefani to Manolo Blahnik, Women from the Ankle Down is an entertaining, compelling look at the evolution of modern women and the fashion that reflects—and has shaped—their changing lives.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition
My secret wish, should I ever become fabulously wealthy, is to have my shoes custom made. No matter how perfectly a pair of store-bought shoes fit, it only fits one foot perfectly. I suspect I am not alone in this minor asymmetry.

And yet, according to Rachelle Bergstein in Women From the Ankle Down, we have it pretty good now. It is only since the mid-nineteenth century that left and right shoes were differentiated, and then only for custom-made shoes. Most people had to wait until the dawn of the twentieth century to be able to buy ready-made pairs in which the left and right shoes weren't identical.

To me, this is the most remarkable thing about the the social history of shoes - that some people are willing to spend $500 for a pair of shoes that aren't even custom-made to their own feet. But that's one of the points of the book - that the history of women's shoes in the 20th century in America is about politics and psychology and feminism and more - but it's not about comfort.

Looking to movies, television, and comic books, Bergstein examines how shoes signal more about the woman than do her clothes or her hair or what she says. While Bergstein stays on the topic of shoes (for the most part), the conversation ranges widely. We learn the story of shoemaker and designer Salvatore Ferragamo. The ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz make several appearances. We find out that Wonder Woman's boots were originally sandals. Jane Fonda and her workout videos are in here, as well as Sean Penn's slacker character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. You really can learn a lot about people from the shoes they wear.
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By sheilagh temblett on 21 Nov. 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I bought this as a gift and it appears to be just what I was looking for
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 60 reviews
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
More than expected 29 May 2012
By Pauline - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
With Women From the Ankle Down in hand, I had expected to be entertained by a soft, fun romp through the world of women's' shoes; good bedtime reading. I was so pleasantly surprised to find that once I began reading what Ms. Bergstein chronicled, I couldn't put the book down. Far more than (and in addition to) an overview of women's relationship with their shoes and the fun of connecting different shoe styles to women's differing identities, I was experiencing a cultural analysis of how the zeitgeist of our country had changed over almost a century. I was given a cohesive view of woman in their struggles and triumphs within that time frame. Taking the journey via Ms. Bergstein's very apt, entertaining and intelligent writing style, I felt sorry for all of the Rosie's who had to give back to the men not only their riveters, their work clothes, and their "practical" shoes, but also their new found sense of empowerment. I ached for the eventual emotional deadness and pill-popping inclinations of the 50's housewife who "had" to look a certain way each day for her husband, down to her heels. I adored the back story of the Ruby Slippers and the making of the Wizard of Oz. Overall, Bergstein's book has layers of experience. I found it to be a thoroughly pleasurable and compelling read - both smart and entertaining - unexpectedly thought provoking, and a book that any woman can relate to and enjoy.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
shoes glorious shoes! 19 April 2012
By C. Quinn - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This wonderfully readable book traces the modern history of shoes from Salvatore Ferragamo to Marilyn Monroe, from the ruby slippers to Carrie Bradshaw's Manolos. Shoes are tied to current events, to music, to movies, to the evolving role of women in the world. I was delighted to read about Hollywood starlets and their relationship to their shoes and shoemakers, and certainly loved hearing about the ruby slippers in all their glory. As a girl with a closet full of shoes, it was lovely to travel down memory lane by reading about some of my old favorites- Keds, Chuck Taylors, and of course a couple of pairs of Docs. The book was a great read about a subject dear to many women's hearts, and would make a great gift for any Imelda Marcos wanna-be in your life.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
A Trip Through Time 11 April 2012
By Bonnie Cehovet - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
What an astounding book! This was like old home week! And a confirmation of what women have always known - that our shoes tell the world who we are, even more than our clothes. Bergstein talks about shoes (with authority!), but she also presents them against the background of their own time, reflecting the people and issues that were prevalent at that time. It is the history of American shoe styles, with the inclusion of British and European influences.

Even those of us that do not know much about the people behind the shoes will recognize the names that shine here: Ferragamo, Doc Marten, Jimmy Cho, Christiane Louboutin, Manolo Blahnik. We read a bit about their history, and about the history of the women who wear their shoes - the movie studio starlets (and the major stars!), Judy Garland and her ruby red slippers, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Nancy Sinatra, Jane Fonda, and Jacqueline Kennedy, with her impeccable style.

Starting in the war years of WW II, we see how styles changed with the materials available, and how the role of women changed. Flats, mid-level heels, power pumps, stiletto heels, wedges, boots, sneakers, running shoes - they all have their place.

Through the lens of Bergstein's writing, the reader will see why their shoes are so important to them, and to the image they wish to project. A powerful, fascinating read!
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
This One's a Shoe-In 24 Mar. 2012
By Janemb35 - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This is a fascinating short course in the history of the woman's shoe, starting in 1907 in Bonito, Italy and the obsession of a little boy, Salvatore Ferragamo, who revolutionized the woman's shoe industry. Prior to his research, the shoe for the right foot was exactly like the one for the left. Indeed, there was no appreciation for the anatomy of the foot and the way it flexed when shod and when bare. Ferragamo changed all that.
As World Wars I and II came and went there were enormous shifts in what women were wearing and doing. For example, women left the home to work in factories doing war work, and needed comfortable, practical shoes. Shoes in the United States were rationed to 3 pairs a year, and there was some restriction on decoration. The decorative palette was limited to black, white, brown and beige. But as the author points out, there have been many changes--in color schemes, heel heights, decorations, even uses for different styles.
This is a well-researched book, surveying American history and social influences and showing the effect of technological change on fashion and society. It is readable and entertaining!
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
The sole of women 4 April 2012
By "switterbug" Betsey Van Horn - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I get a kick out of women's shoes--the protrusions and spikes, the high fashion toes like ship's prows and the platforms like personal podiums. Bergstein's debut book on how shoes define women offers the reader a celebrity-infused history of our relationship to footwear. The diversity of shoes reflects something more than function and personal style; our choices are inextricably laced with desire and identified with social currency.

Bergstein begins with Farragamo's humble beginnings in a small Italian village in 1907 and ends with the contemporary fascination with celebrities and the desire to emulate their expensive branding styles, specifically Sarah Jessica-Parker (aka Carrie Bradshaw) from the popular show, Sex and the City. The hit show put Manolo Blahnik on the map (Minolos), a high end designer whose eponymous shoes were referred to by Carrie Bradshaw as "Hello, lover" in one episode.

A hefty section is devoted to the illustrious ruby slippers, including anecdotes on Judy Garland's career and her difficulty fitting in with the Hollywood definition of beauty, as well as the relatable themes of The Wizard of Oz during the Great Depression. Much of the history portrayed on the ruby slippers is common knowledge or easily accessible on Wikipedia. There isn't much that Bergstein wrote about this topic that I didn't already know.

"It Girls" like Marilyn Munroe, Audrey Hepburn, and Lana Turner, to the Olsen twins, Jessica-Parker and Naomi Campbell (and more) suffuse the pages with their soles. Peruvian painter, Alberto Vargas and his famous pin-up girls, or "Varga girls," also had a huge influence on the shoes women desired during the mid-twentieth century.

The ascendency of Jane Fonda's 1980's workout put trainers on the map, like Reebok, and later, Nike. Chuck Taylors and iconic Doc Martens are covered in some detail, also. Shoes commandeered by rock stars and grunge musicians; fashion models; movie stars; and even Wonder Woman illustrate the social agency of the wannabe culture that imitates. Boots, ballet shoes, sandals, stilettos, pumps, sling-backs, platforms, clogs, crocs--and even the World War II flat, practical shoe style adorn the pages.

Bergstein writes in an affable style, creating an accessible narrative out of a chronological history. However, I thought this was going to have more of an anthropological context than it ultimately offered. Of course, celebrities love their Louboutins, the glossy red-soled status symbol of the new woman, and consumers have a rabid attraction to every shoe selected by Carrie Bradshaw. But, after a while, I tired of reading about celebrities.

Although Bergstein, to her credit, talked about everything from Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique to the disco culture and women's lib, some of these anecdotes strained to fit in with her central narrative. Sometimes she would veer off, i.e. talking about Judy Garland's weight problem or John Travolta's swagger, The Wizard of Oz appealing to a humble platitude of home and family, tidbits that are already well known or digressing from the premise. By the time the book was done, I was up to my thighs in Sex and the City, and how a pedestrian TV show became a touchstone for consumers' feet.
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