The Shoes of Our Lost Icons Are Still Full of Life

To paint in his studio in Northampton, Mass., Eric Carle — who illustrated and wrote dozens of picture books, most famously “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” — outfitted himself in a white smock in the style of a doctor’s lab coat and a dedicated pair of black lace-up Italian dress shoes that he would wear nowhere else. “It was his transition from his regular personal life into the creative world,” says Motoko Inoue, the former creative director of Carle’s studio, who remembers his persistent yearning to bring more color and saturation into the world. But for all the taut routine, Carle “embraced mess” in his painting life, often using a broom as a giant paintbrush to make massive murals on the floors of his studio and splashing himself with vivid hues in the process, says Rachel Hass of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. “The shoes themselves were so sophisticated and elegant, so splattered with paint, they capture this combination of the free child and the sophisticated man — the essence of Eric.”

For the writer Larry McMurtry, whose works include the adapted screenplay for “Brokeback Mountain” and the novel “Lonesome Dove,” each morning was a ritual: He’d take a bath and don a blue Oxford shirt with Levi’s and the same pair of rigid cowboy boots, then sit down at his typewriter and not get up until he’d written five pages. “He grew up in Texas and was a reluctant cowboy until he was 22,” says Diana Ossana, his longtime writing partner, who lived with him for 30 years. “After he had open-heart surgery in 1991, we would take walks every afternoon, and he wore those boots, which drove me crazy. I said, ‘You need to get some tennis shoes!’” McMurtry just laughed. Every 10 years or so, when the boots wore out, he and Ossana would visit the same store to buy them again. “When you wear something that has a heel on it like that,” she says, “your Achilles tendons can shorten, and so in his later years, he’d lay down, and I’d take his heel and stretch it for him.”

There’s no definitive count, but by the approximation of her family members, Sarah Dash might have owned 400 or 500 pairs of shoes. Dash — a formidable funk and gospel singer, integral member of the chart-conquering vocal trio Labelle and creative collaborator to Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones — “loved Christian Louboutin, Chanel, Versace,” remembers Sarah Ann Freeman, Dash’s niece and stylist. “She loved stilettos, because she thought they made her look tall. She loved reds and oranges, loved different textures and textiles and fabrics of clothing.” Freeman says Dash’s shoe arsenal — as well as her rival collection of ritzy sunglasses and the array of Victorian antiques peppering her house — reflected her personality, which was “laid-back, fun and funky.” Dash wore these fur-trimmed heels for her 2007 performances with the San Francisco circus Teatro ZinZanni, paired with an enormous feathered headdress and wings.

Before the heavy curtain was raised to begin one of Siegfried & Roy’s magic shows at the Mirage in Las Vegas, one half of the duo, Siegfried Fischbacher, would sneak out into the audience to mingle with unsuspecting fans — wearing a cloak and a mask, quietly feeling out the mood of the crowd, the only hint of his identity an unusual pair of studded silver boots on his feet, according to his publicist Dave Kirvin. These boots were one of many custom-designed elements of the show’s $3.5 million wardrobe, and they were worn in one of 30 or 40 lightning-quick costume changes the duo would make over the course of each performance. They were also a plot device in the show, which eschewed dialogue and relied on physical illusions, often involving tigers, white lions and other exotic animals.

The master saxophonist Alfred (Pee Wee) Ellis, whose proficiency across genres yielded both an ample recording catalog and a career directing the music of James Brown and Van Morrison, was meticulous about his stage appearance. These loafers were bought by his wife and manager, Charlotte Crofton-Sleigh, specifically to match a lush velvet jacket that Ellis had made for his solo Christmas tour. “Pee Wee hated shopping,” she recalls. “He was a down-to-earth, simple man at heart — day to day, his clothes would be casual tracksuits, baseball caps — but when it came to performing, he was very particular, and much more formal. Everything had to be right, from the shoes to the shirt to the tie and collar stays. He considered it a mark of respect for the audience to be at his best. How he looked was as much a part of the show as how he played. Once the suit was on, it was game on.”

No contemporary designer’s signature rivals that of Virgil Abloh’s — in dynamism, abundance or scale. Abloh, who studied engineering and architecture, confessed in a lecture at Harvard in 2017 that he was “not a sneakerhead” himself: “I just wear the same shoes for a really long time, and then I just go on to another.” But from his informal sartorial background (he learned fashion’s basics from his mother, a seamstress), he created a tantalizing meld of luxury and streetwear and yielded cult-status collaborations between Off-White, his brand, and Nike. Now “there are people around this room who look like me,” Abloh, the child of Ghanaian immigrants, told The Times in 2018. “You never saw that before in fashion. The people have changed, and so fashion had to.” This neon green pair were among the last shoes Abloh, who was artistic director of Louis Vuitton men’s wear, ever designed. He died before getting to see them debut on Louis Vuitton’s Miami runway in November.

The rigor of Jacques d’Amboise — who carried 24 tailor-made roles as a principal dancer of the New York City Ballet from 1953 to 1984 and also founded the National Dance Institute in New York — is revealed in his footwear. He “always squeezed his feet into ballet shoes that were a size too small — he felt it made his lines look more elegant,” says Christopher d’Amboise, Jacques’s son and a dancer himself, who adds that Jacques performed with “boyish exuberance” and a “carefree, insouciant style.” But “over the years, his toes became so gnarled as to require multiple surgeries and left him unable to easily walk in normal shoes — these shoes exhibit the height of artistic excellence as well as the physical sacrifice that comes with achieving it.” Jamee Schleifer, a longtime friend, bought the pair at auction to keep Jacques’s buoyant spirit in her home. “Hugging him felt like hugging a rock, the man was so in shape,” she says. “He filled these shoes to the very edge.”

The flame-haired burlesque legend Tempest Storm — a rags-to-riches celebrity who strip-teased at Carnegie Hall, and was a rumored lover of John F. Kennedy and Elvis — would whirl out onto a stage in an overgown, gloves, pearls and a hat and leave it in only a G-string, pasties and one of her many beloved pairs of high heels. The so-called “vintage stripper” once caused a riot at a university just by peeling off her mink coat, and she continued performing into her early 80s, until she fell and injured her hip during a performance. “She was never out in public without heels, even at age 90. She was flamboyant, highly independent and incredibly schooled, even though she only went through the seventh grade and came from the cotton fields of Georgia,” says Harvey Robbins, who first saw Storm dance when he was 16 and, 50 years later, proudly became her manager. “She didn’t do photos with stars,” he says, “because she felt she was just as big as any of them.”

The Hall of Famer and revered right fielder Hank Aaron hit a nearly unrivaled 755 home runs. On the field, Aaron led the Atlanta Braves (formerly the Milwaukee Braves) and the Milwaukee Brewers to dizzying wins. Off it, he was a Black man from Alabama who grew up having to hide from Ku Klux Klan marches, was shuttled to “colored” changing rooms when he first made it into professional baseball and fielded death threats that increased in number the closer he got to breaking Babe Ruth’s record. “He’d come in for a game, get dressed, go home,” Joe Torre, a former teammate, said upon Aaron’s death. Aaron told The Times in 1994 that he had to leave ballparks by the back door and be escorted by the police: “All of these things have put a bad taste in my mouth, and it won’t go away. They carved a piece of my heart away.” He wore this pair of cleats during the final years of his M.L.B. career.

Hester Ford, believed to be the oldest American at the time of her death, was a celebrity in Charlotte, N.C., to the point that bus drivers used to make unscheduled stops at her house to pick her up for errands. Ford, still energetic and dauntless, would regularly walk miles and miles each day well after she turned 100. She lived to 115 or 116 (there is conflicting census data about the year Ford was born) and would traipse to church and myriad relatives’ houses in the neighborhood. “I called her the queen of life hacks,” says Tanisha Patterson-Powe, one of Ford’s more than 120 great-grandchildren. “If something was broken, she had the creativity to fix it.” Patterson-Powe recalls Ford’s no-nonsense spirit and profound resilience — she lived through the Jim Crow era of discrimination, two pandemics and 21 presidential elections — and says her expansive family tree brought her the most joy. “She would bake a cake for each and every one of us,” says Mary Hill, one of her granddaughters.

Halyna Hutchins, who worked as an investigative journalist in Eastern Europe before moving to Los Angeles to pursue film production, avidly collected boots. She was killed by a prop gun discharged by Alec Baldwin on the film set of “Rust” in October. After her death, her husband, Matt Hutchins, discovered a pair of intricate Tiffany-blue cowboy boots in her hotel room, still delicately bundled in tissue paper. “Evidently, she’d purchased the boots with the intention of bringing them back to Los Angeles and had left them packed to avoid the scrapes and scuffs that are inevitable working on location in the desert,” he said in a note to The Times. “Halyna loved to wear leather accessories and colorful scarves and hats, and I have no doubt these boots, in her mind, would have been already part of, or the foundation for, a number of outfits she would wear when she came home.”

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