In the anonymous 1765 children's story The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes (attributed to Oliver Goldsmith), a poor young girl manages to make it through life with only one shoe and is finally rewarded with a complete pair by a rich gentleman.
This is definitely not the only tale that puts footwear in a special position as the popular tradition of storytelling often used shoes, shoemakers and walking as pretexts for social commentary. The history of literature is indeed rife with tales in which shoes have a prominent position, such as Hans Christian Andersen's The Red Shoes or Charles Perrault's Cinderella.That's not to mention shoes encyclopaedia, medical literature analysing the shape of the foot, or treaties such as De Calceo Antiquo, the very first volume entirely dedicated to shoes published in Latin in 1667 by breechmaker turned scholar Benoît Baudoin and Giulio Negrone, a Jesuit and instructor in rhethoric and theology.
If you have read many of these stories or treaties, if you're a shoe scholar and collector or if you're simply obsessed with footwear, starting from this weekend you will be able to indulge in your passion at the Victoria & Albert Museum's latest exhibition - "Shoes: Pleasure & Pain". The event explores the theme through more than 250 pairs of shoes – among them historical and contemporary styles from all over the world.
From ancient Greece, premodern Japan and present-day modern societies, and from being symbolically associated with themes such as movement and journeys, shoes have turned from means of protection into means of distinction, identity, power and even torture, becoming sexually alluring objects, so much so that in the early Christian era shiny black shoes with pointed toes were included in the list of immodest items of female dress denounced by John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople.
In a way the categories in which curator Helen Persson divided the exhibition replicate this progression: the two floors of the Fashion Gallery feature different shoe categories, including "transformation", "status" and "seduction".
Shoes have indeed first and foremost caused segregation between classes: the sole of sandals from late Pharaonic Egypt was covered in gold foil, something that referenced the owner's venerated position in society. Besides, delicate, elaborate or impracticable shoes were for important people, while functional designs and practical footwear were designed for people who walked and worked.
There is definitely something to every taste in the event: less than 8cm long 19th-century Chinese silk shoes for bound feet; big Adidas basketball boots from the late 1980s; men’s slippers from the Silk Road in the first century BC; Empress Eugénie’s fur bootees; the blood-red ballet slippers worn by Moira Shearer in Powell and Pressburger’s film The Red Shoes; Vivienne Westwood's notorious platforms that caused Naomi Campbell to fall on the runway; Clarks, Oxford brogues and Wellington boots; ceremonial Qabâqibs inlaid with mother of pearls, perilous Venetian calcagnini, glam rock platforms and Alexander McQueen's mutant "Armadillo" boots (by now recycled in so many contexts and exhibitions that we may have lost count...).
Some of these pieces could be considered as archaelogical relics: Marilyn Monroe's well-worn pair of mid-height white Salvatore Ferragamo pump feature an intimate detail, her toe prints; others like the feathered sandals that Carrie Bradshaw loses in an episode of Sex and The City, are the obvious choice to attract fashionistas who may find more intriguing looking at window shops than carefully observing museum displays.
Fetishims is introduced via Christian Louboutin's 2007 collaboration with David Lynch entitled “Fetish”, including unwearable shoes that the film-maker photographed on tottering naked models (unwearability and imparement are also tackled by other shoes/ fashion images in the exhibition).
Louboutin's shoes with a high heel almost parallel with the sole of the foot are accompanied by a photograph of a semi-naked model crawling that illustrates how you would wear them.
One point of the exhibition is also to show how footwear truly helped shaping the construction of female status, desirability and self-representation: erotic associations heightened during the '40s culminating in the invention of the stiletto in the mid-'50s with Vogue models and Hollywood bombshells wearing the shoes. The '60s youth quake changed the rules of the game, something shown in the exhibition by a fun pair of Mary Quant boots with the trademark daisy imprinted in the sole.
Correlations and juxtapositions are key elements in this exhibition: Elsa Schiaparelli's 1938 monkey fur boots have been reinvened into "Cousin It"-like monstrous faux fur slippers in Alessandro Michele's Autumn/Winter 2015 collection for Gucci; the story of the Seven-League Boots from European folk tales, is presented next to a pair of modern football boots endorsed by David Beckham, almost a way to re-balance the male/female obsession for shoes. Men are indeed represented not just as designers, makers and fetishists, but also as wearers.
This is one of the main aims of the exhibition that also tries to provide a new and fresher perspective on the history of footwear by including rare pieces such as a Greek terracotta statuette of Aphrodite wearing platform sandals, dated first century BC (on loan from the British Museum).
This aspect could have been pushed a bit further making references to satirical cartoons, illustrations, engravings, paintings or even interior design pieces (à la Memphis Milano) that display some connections with shoes or that inspired specific shoe collections.
Film clips aren't missing, though some of them are pretty obvious and include Some Like It Hot, Belle de Jour, Saturday Night Fever and Back to the Future 2 (will we see more films in a dedicated programme linked to this exhibition maybe?). Talking about the future, well, it is tackled in thsi event via innovative shapes and technologies such as 3D printing, with shoes on display including Zaha Hadid “Nova” for United Nude and Andreia Chaves' "Invisible Shoe (Naked Version)".
The wall of shoe boxes complete with polaroids of styles from the permanent collection that didn't make the exhibition shows not just the possibilities of the V&A archive (that features over 2,000 pairs of shoes spanning over 3,000 years...), but reminds visitors that, as the shoe lexicon may have enriched, mutated and transformed throughout the years, the average per capita shoe consumption is contantly on the rise, almost as if we were collectively seized by a sort of Imelda Marcos syndrome.
The exhibition closes with a final question: why do women and men as well, build up collections of shoes that they are unlikely to wear? The narrator of Geoff Nicholson's Footsucker may have provided some answers relating to sex, power and kinky apparel.
Visitors of this V&A exhibition will discover more simple answers, completely unrelated to what you may find in Kraft-Ebbing's Pyschopathia Sexualis: some people actually just buy shoes for the pleasure of looking and touching, others, like Lionel Bussey, who acquired around 600 shoes from 1914 until his death in 1969, collected or are collecting footwear with one main hope - that of seeing their personal archives being preserved one day in a museum. Given their contribution to some museum collections like the V&A, their intent and aim could be considered as almost noble.
"Shoes: Pleasure and Pain", sponsored by Clarks, supported by Agent Provocateur and by the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers, runs from June 13 to January 31 2016 at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK.
Image credits for this post
1. Red ballet shoes made for Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) in The Red Shoes (1948), silk satin, braid and leather, Freed of London (founded in 1929), England.
2. Chopines, Punched kid leather over carved pine, Venice, Italy.
3. Wedding toe-knob paduka, silver and gold over wood, India.
4. One sandal, gilded and incised leather and papyrus, Egypt.
5. E5. Evening shoe, beaded silk and leather, France, Roger Vivier (1907–98) for Christian Dior (1905–1957).
6. "Parakeet" shoes, Caroline Groves, England, 2014.
7. Desert boots, light brown suede, Clarks.
8. Naomi Campbell falling on the catwalk in 1993 wearing Westwood's blue mock croc 10" platforms. Photo by Niall McInerney.
9. Mens' shoes, gilded and marbled leather, Northamptonshire, England.
10. Model Nadja Auermann in a Dolce & Gabbana suit, Summer 1995. High & Mighty shoot, American Vogue.
11. "Invisible Shoe (Naked Version)" by Andreia Chaves.
12. NOVA by Zaha Hadid for United Nude.
13 - 18. Installation views of "Shoes: Pleasure and Pain at the V&A" (13 June 2015 - 31 January 2016) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
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