Shoes: Pleasure and Pain @ Victoria & Albert Museum

A wonderful exhibition of the fantastical designs, shapes, engineering, ingenuity and expertise the human imagination has brought to the humble shoe, a basic item of equipment invented to protect feet from the environment which, throughout human history and around the globe, has mutated into thousands of patterns and purposes and continues, in our time, to inspire designers and craftsmen to ever giddier flights of fancy.

The show brings together over 200 pairs of shoes, ranging from a sandal decorated in pure gold leaf from ancient Egypt to the most elaborate concoctions of contemporary makers.

One sandal, gilded and incised leather and papyrus, Egypt (c.30 BCE-300 CE ) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

One sandal, gilded and incised leather and papyrus, Egypt
(c.30 BCE-300 CE) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The exhibition is divided into two parts:

  • Downstairs the carpet, walls and curtains are all a dark purple, creating a womb-like ambience as soothing new age music pipes through hidden speakers and visitors process past glass panels each showing 10 or 15 or 20 shoes of amazing variety, antiquity and geographical spread.
  • Upstairs is light and white, the stands are on a big circular podium open to the enormous atrium room, with huge video screens suspended from the ceiling showing craftsmen at work creating shoes, a series of cases showing how shoes are designed and constructed, as well as several cases dedicated to the collections of some epic shoeaholics, and a 12-minute video featuring interviews with such shoe gods as Manolo Blahnik, Sandra Choi and Christian Louboutin.

Killer Heels at the Brooklyn Museum

It just so happens that I went to the ‘Killer Heels’ exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum this time last year. It focused more on the glitz and glamour of contemporary designers whereas the V&A show features more examples from around the world and from past eras – as befits the world’s leading historical museum of design. The V&A show definitely brought together a much wider range of footwear but, I think, was less penetrating in its analysis.

For example, where the V&A points out that shoes can be sexy and seductive, the Brooklyn show goes the extra mile to show exactly why, explaining that high heels:

  • push the chest out
  • lift the bottom
  • make the legs appear longer and therefore thinner
  • make the calves more taut and rounded
  • make the feet appear smaller

In other words, high heels make the wearer’s body seem less stumpy and clumpy (less like the body most of us actually possess) and taller, leaner, more agile and athletic, while emphasising bust and buttocks. In biological terms, they highlight a woman’s fertility, youth and fitness as a mate. On a cultural plane, they dramatise a woman’s sexuality and have done for centuries.

 'Parakeet’ shoes Artist: Caroline Groves, England (2014 ) Photography by Dan Lowe .


‘Parakeet’ shoes by Caroline Groves, England (2014) Photography by Dan Lowe.

Folklore, fairy tales and myths

The show starts with the Cinderella fairy story which dates in one form or another back to the first centuries AD. It makes the central point of the show: Cinderella is the virtuous girl whose shoes elevate her literally and socially. Cinderella’s life is transformed because wearing high-heeled shoes gets her noticed by the heir to the throne, the handsome prince. This is the focus of the exhibition – the way that across space and time, the wearing of fancy shoes signals privilege, rank and status.

The same display case goes on to mention other examples of powerful and transformative footwear: the Seven League Boots worn by Hop o’ my Thumb. Reference is also made to Puss In Boots, surely the smartest cat to wear shoes, but not to the Old Lady Who Lived In A Shoe, nor to Hermes, the messenger god with little wings attached to his ankle boots. I would have liked more about the importance of footwear in myth and legend. I bet Marina Warner could write an entire book on the subject – I’d have liked a thoughtful paragraph or two.

Film footwear

Too quickly for my taste the eye was drawn away from the depths of myth and legend to the shallows of shoe-ey film clips: There’s a short bit of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz tapping her ruby slippers, as well as clips of Gene Kelly dancing in the rain and Marilyn Monroe tottering along on high heels which emphasise her waggling bottom. On actual display are the red shoes worn by dancer and actress Moira Shearer in the classic Powell & Pressburger film The Red Shoes, which give their wearer her semi-magical power of dance, but also propel her to her death. Yes, and, and…?

Again I bet there are umpteen studies of footwear in films and it would have been interesting to have had even a few sentences analysing how, for example, close-ups of footwear are a useful shorthand to quickly identify character types, or any other suggestions or thoughts…

Red ballet shoes made for Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) in The Red Shoes (1948), silk satin, braid and leather, England Artist: Freed of London (founded in 1929), Date: 1948 . Photograph reproduced with the kind permission of Northampton Museums and Art Gallery.

Red ballet shoes made for Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) in The Red Shoes (1948), silk satin, braid and leather, England. Freed of London (founded in 1929). Photograph reproduced with the kind permission of Northampton Museums and Art Gallery.

Status and display

Instead the exhibition is rarely distracted from its core mission which is to show how footwear is overwhelmingly about status and display. It is about how rich you are, how your footwear asserts your membership of an elite group or class or circle. Many of the shoes are celebrated for their impracticality: they display and assert that the wearer is quite incapable of physical labour or looking after themselves or managing even the slightest physical obstacle, they are so pampered.

One wall label rather casually pairs Queen Henrietta Maria and Sex and the City‘s Sarah Jessica Parker as ‘style leaders’ whose shoes (and overall look) other people copied. Well, Henrietta’s main achievement was contributing, via her Catholicism, her luxury and her inflexible snobbery, to the unpopularity of her husband King Charles I who plunged his country into civil war and was eventually beheaded.

The exhibition treats ‘status’, being a member of an ‘elite’, of ‘an exclusive circle’, as cost-free activities, as if this appetite for inclusion doesn’t imply a mass exclusion, keeping out the vast majority of people who aren’t in the charmed circle.

The displays range impressively far and wide in its examples: there are shoes from the Ottoman Empire, Ming Dynasty China, Meiji Japan, from Caroline England, from a rajah in pre-Independence India – all regimes which were overthrown in violent revolutions. What role did (and do) ostentatious shoes play in alienating the 99% of the population not allowed or too poor to wear them? Maybe there is no meaningful answer, but the question goes unasked…

Chopines, Punched kid leather over carved pine, Venice, Italy, c. 1600. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Chopines, Punched kid leather over carved pine, Venice, Italy, c. 1600

Sex

In the (surprisingly) small panel about fetish boots and sex, the commentary makes some rather sweeping generalisations:

  • The modern high heel is associated with sexual availability rather than just desirability.‘ Really? As I wrote in my review of the Brooklyn show, I’d have thought it’s more that expensive shoes, especially heels, are about adopting a role, assuming a pose, feeling more glamorous and attractive. Not at all the same thing as making yourself sexually available. For most people most of the time, I’d have thought the sexual suggestiveness of high heels and glamour shoes is implicit, repressed, unacknowledged, beneath the socially (and personally) acceptable activity of making yourself look ‘glamorous’, ‘gorgeous’, ‘classy’, ‘enchanting’, ‘smart’.
  • Further, the commentary asserts that ‘sexy shoes affect the movements of the body, titillating the watcher and creating a sensual experience for the wearer…  Shoes equal sex.’ Well, quite obviously most shoes do not equal sex. And, as and when they do, it’s surely in a number of ways: the Brooklyn exhibition put into words precisely how heels cantilever the female form to emphasise its sexual characteristics. But thigh length boots, stilletoes, studded shoes? I could have done with more explanation, from psychologists or sexologists, about just why shoes can be so erotic.

Scores of the shoes and boots scattered randomly throughout the exhibition are doubtless ‘sexy’, designed to emphasise a woman’s sexuality, designed to cater to (changing) sexual tastes through the ages – but restricting this big theme to one small display case, for me raised but then didn’t sufficiently explore the idea.

‘Invisible Naked Version' by Andreia Chaves (2011) Photo by Andrew Bradley .

‘Invisible Naked Version’ by Andreia Chaves (2011) Photo by Andrew Bradley.

Shoes and control

In fact, one of the themes that emerges from the show is that many shoes through history were designed not to flaunt their wearer’s sexuality, but to cripple the wearer, to severely restrict their ability to walk. The Japanese prostitute heels linked to above, are one example. Another well-known extreme is the terrifying traditional shoes worn by Chinese women, whose feet had been broken and bound in order to look petite and exquisite.

Clearly some cultures developed traditions designed to hamper walking in all sorts of ingenious ways. For some cultures the motive was to highlight the wearer’s wealth and status, emphasising that they didn’t need to move very much because everything was done for them, brought to them. For another large group, mainly women, their ability to walk was limited by their masters, who thereby demonstrated their power and control.

Again, I’d have welcomed some thoughtful commentary about the importance of shoes as implements of power and control through the ages. Maybe sustained investigation of these themes is in the exhibition book…

Below are silver platform shoes, named padukas, traditionally given to brides in India to create height, and to emphasise (as usual) their wealth and status. I imagine the most the wearer could manage would be a shuffle. Maybe a cautious totter…

Wedding toe-knob paduka, silver and gold over wood, India (1800s)

Wedding toe-knob paduka, silver and gold over wood, India (1800s)

Work and gender

The curators know their audience, white, middle-class, older, female. The world of work, and especially the vast world of male physical labour, was largely invisible. All forms of working boot, steel-capped boots, footwear worn on building sites and in factories, by sailors and truck drivers, was not here. I particularly missed Doc Martens, that symbol of skinheads and the violent 1970s (which have, in fact, largely reinvented themselves as style accessories).

For as well as physical labour, the equally male world of violence is largely invisible, the bloody civil war which the extravagance of Henrietta Marie helped to spark and the elaborately beshoed Charles II managed to escape, nowhere mentioned.

The Duke of Wellington is here because of his well-known boots but nothing else about Army or Navy or Air Force footwear, riding wear, driving wear, flying wear, climbing wear. Tucked away in a corner of one display were some fantastic glam rock platform boots from 1973, which the original owner is quoted as saying were good for ‘kicking the shit’ out of other men. But for the most part, marching, tramping, working, kicking, fighting, all these male foot-related activities are invisible.

NOVA by Zaha Hadid for United Nude (c) Image Courtesty of United Nude.

NOVA by Zaha Hadid for United Nude (c) Image Courtesty of United Nude.

Makers and collectors

Upstairs the focus shifted to the making and collecting of shoes. There were several stands devoted to explaining just how shoes are designed, how patterns are generated from the prototype and then the necessary shapes cut from leather. There was an array of heels, the same shape, but painted different colours and with various diamante applications, which I found fascinating. I was also interested to learn that the metal spike heel was invented in the 1950s, which allowed designers to play with a whole new type of look.

Around the corner is a brilliant semi-circular 7-foot-high wall made of everyday cardboard shoeboxes. I really liked this as a piece of sculpture, but it’s also practical for it creates an auditorium effect, there are benches placed in front of it and in the middle is suspended a big video screen on which plays the 12-minute video I mentioned earlier, featuring interviews with shoe gods Manolo Blahnik, Sandra Choi, Christian Louboutin and others.

The final section of the exhibition contains a number of cases which display the collections of several notable collectors of shoes. Lionel Ernest Bussey collected shoes from about 1914 until his death in 1969, all ladies shoes bought from fairly ordinary shoe shops. By the time of his death he’d collected about 600 pairs, all new and unworn, many not even taken out of their boxes. He left his collection to the V&A. Robert Brooks (age 42) collects just adidas trainers and travels the world to acquire rare items for a collection which now numbers over 800 pairs. Also featured is Katie Porter from west London who has more than 230 shoes in her collection.

Why? We are invited to marvel at these impressive collections, but I’d have welcomed a sentence or two exploring and explaining the psychology of collecting, and of collecting shoes in particular.

Installation view of Shoes: Pleasure and Pain , Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Installation view of Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Note the wall of shoe boxes in the background and the display of Robert Brooks’s adidas trainers in the foreground.

Lighten up

But maybe I was expecting too much. Maybe I’m missing the point: maybe it is simply that all these shoes – removed from their historical contexts, from too much depth or meaning – are all transformed by this exhibition into objects of fantasy and escape. The exhibition invites us to gawp and marvel and not dig too deep.

We ordinary folk who can never afford Henrietta Maria chopines or Sarah Jessica Parker’s Blahniks, can enjoy them, and hundreds of other weird and exotic specimens, here in the V&A and, by extension, on the internet, in magazines, in videos. Via all these channels we can enter, without too much thought, into magical worlds where we are all thinner, taller and richer, where we all live for a moment more interesting, colourful lives, in remote historical eras and exotic countries, inhabiting the countless fantasies these amazing and endlessly inventive objects offer us. Maybe marvelling and admiring is enough.

On YouTube

A good overview of the show by Euromaxx TV.


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