The dyed-to-match shoe. In modern times, this has become something associated with weddings and Payless Shoes, and even at that it’s getting harder to find. But in the 1950s and 1960s, it was quite popular, and usually done in an artful way. In a season 3 episode of the TV series Mad Men, Pete’s wife Trudy wears a beautiful teal cocktail dress, and I was impressed to see her shoes as she curled up on the couch. They were an almost perfect match in color to her dress (and a beautiful satin style as well). Unfortunately, to see more evidence of this great trend, you have to go back further, to classic films.
No one did dyed-to-match better than designer Edith Head. Some of her best examples of this are actually on the men she dressed. In many of her Technicolor movies, she created a seamless line for the men by matching their shoes exactly to their pants (and quite often, even the socks blended in!). One of my favorite examples of this is 1954’s White Christmas. The first evidence comes when Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby perform in their show-within-a-movie wearing light gray slacks and matching oxford shoes. In the musical number, “Mandy”, Head takes it a colorful step further, with all of the male dancers in varying shades of green tuxedos. And, of course, the shoes and socks match the pants, in those shades, perfectly.
Walter Plunkett also employed this technique in Singin’ in the Rain. I got to see some of his work up close at Debbie Reynolds’ 2011 costume exhibit, where Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor’s shoes were on display. The green and white spectator-style oxfords were a great match to their suits from the “Fit as a Fiddle” number. The women in Singin’ got some great shoes too, especially in the fashion montage in “Beautiful Girl.” Most of the ensembles had colorful shoes to match them, from blue lace-up flats with a bathing costume to bright pink satin shoes as part of an evening ensemble. Even the chorus girls got to wear lavender shoes that were the same hue as their floaty dresses.
Another great, although lesser-known, example is My Blue Heaven (1950). Betty Grable shows off her famous legs with some fantastic shoes in all kinds of colors. And because of those legs, we get lots of long shots that provide for great shoe-viewing. It’s a great picture for signature ‘50s fashion, and the shoes are particularly remarkable.
One of my favorite types of dyed-to-match shoes are ballet shoes. The silhouette of a pointe shoe is so beautiful anyway, but add some color and it takes it to another level. Leslie Caron had some gorgeous colored shoes in An American in Paris, both in an early dance montage and then in the classic ballet. Vera-Ellen had what appeared to be black leather pointe shoes in On the Town. For several years I costumed a dance company, and I loved when we could work colored shoes into the dances. For a ballet set in modern times, we even transformed some of the slippers to look like athletic shoes. (And FYI – rather than going out and buying messy or even expensive fabric dye, try colored Sharpies. They work wonders on satin pointe shoes, and you can even have some fun with special designs!)
*Janie Bryant designs the costumes for Mad Men; My Blue Heaven was designed by Charles Le Maire; the costume designers for An American in Paris were Irene Sharaff (ballet), Orry-Kelly (general costumes), and Walter Plunkett (Beaux Arts ball); and On the Town featured Helen Rose’s designs.