An iconic pair of 1970s multicolored disco platform heels sits on a shelf in the Pettigrew Hall office of Associate Professor of Theater B. Christine McDowell.

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Along with other shoes, these disco-era platform heels sit on a shelf in the Pettigrew Hall office of Associate Professor of Theater B. Christine McDowell. (Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College)

“In and of themselves they are fantastic works of art,” says McDowell, a costume and scenic designer, but “they are also a marker for period color palettes and overall cultural aesthetic.”

Those shoes and others in McDowell’s collection provide a walk through the evolution of design. “They’re another aspect of costume history, and a way to identify eras and look at cultural and aesthetic trends,” she says.

McDowell estimates that she has 200-plus pairs of vintage shoes, not all of which were sought out by her. It’s curious, she says, how “when you show an interest in something particular, people start giving things to you.” In that sense, she enjoys recalling where, from whom, and how she got many of her shoes.

Many are at home, she says, with the more fantastic ones ending up in her office, either on the bookshelves or in an adjacent walk-in closet, where she stashes all sorts of costume and design treasures, such as a hand-stitched dress from the 1840s and a still-trendy Victorian-era piece of mourning jewelry made from hair.

She has something for every interest. And her students are interested, especially in the shoes. “They really connect with them because they’re like toys. Students are always coming into the office and saying, ‘Oh my God, look at your shoes! I love your shoes!’”

She does wear them, including the disco platforms. “Other than the sheer joyfulness of those shoes, I like to put them on. I feel quite cool — and tall — when I put them on.”

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