Shoes: Pleasure and Plan
The exhibition “Shoes: Pleasure and Pain” at the Victoria and Albert museum in London looks at shoes beyond their necessity for protecting the feet from environmental changes and rough paths and walkways. The show, with more than 200 pairs from all over the world, is a cultural trip from the ancient periods to the contemporary times, tracing development of footwear through the centuries and showing how the changes in fashion reflected on a society and its culture. Shoes are seen from the view of the technological revolution and its influence on their shapes and forms. Shoes also are indicators of the status, gender, taste and sexuality of the wearer, betraying sexual connotations, and the creativity that goes into their production.
The design and manufacturing of shoes changed enormously through the ages, in different countries and cultures. Originally, the emphasis was on the function of the wearer, as very high invoked the importance of the wearer and his status. But design and creativity gave shoes a wider function, where high fashion shoes were made from expensive materials, becoming too costly for the masses, thus appropriated by the elite. Shoes have found their way to the culture, folklore and art of countries and regions.
A section of the exhibition is devoted to shoes worn by fictional characters. The viewer enjoys seeing the imaginative transparent glass slippers that Cinderella wore at the ball, which she dropped in her haste so the prince could trace her and make her the princess she deserves to be. Then, there are the red shoes worn by Karen, the character from Hans Christian Anderson’s book of fairy tales. Karen is forced to dance continually, non-stop in her red shoes, as a punishment for committing the sin of vanity.
The red shoes of the fictional children’s novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, made famous by the Hollywood musical with Dorothy played by Judy Garland, who wore the recognisable red shoes shown in every design exhibition. There are also the boots of the cat of the fairy tale “Puss in Boots”, where the boots gave the feline the power to move and communicate with humans and allowed it to use trickery and ruse to gain power and wealth for its penniless master and eventually to lead him to marry the princess.
Our modern fairy tale shoes give the wearer the power to fly, leap and possess supernatural power, like Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman. Also, advertisers for footwear should not be underestimated, as they give the wearer the power to become a superhero in the football field or basketball court, and promise to change the life of the wearer and give him everlasting happiness.
Also exposed are the shoes that were worn by real people. Some are so innovative and original as to defy fiction. Historic shoes like those worn by the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, probably the oldest around, can be admired with their opulence and extravagance. Equally, the elevated red-heeled foot-attire of king Louis XLV was made specially to give him height and posture, and its elaborate embroidery shows his regal status. The heels could reach 10 cm and the shoes were sometimes decorated with battle scenes.
The moccasins worn by Canadian war chiefs are made of leather or bison hides. The elaborate ones have beads and other ornaments. With awe, we see the simple shoes belonging to Marilyn Monroe with traces of her toes showing.
Amusingly, in the Middle Ages, a person with authority and wealth was referred to as ‘well-heeled’.
Very elaborate footwear was created in China for its emperors, and in India, the maharajas and the ruling class generally competed in embroidering their footwear with gold thread, and encrusting the shoes with emeralds, rubies, sapphires and diamonds.
Always symbolising status, and in distant times, heavy, uncomfortable shoes that were difficult for walking meant that their owner was an important person who did not need to do physical work.
Shoes and feet have always had sexual intonations and sexy shoes make the body move differently. Sensuality through footwear is also demonstrated in different ways among the sexes. For women, it is designed for feet to look elegant and small, while for men the opposite applies. For them, big, heavy shoes demonstrate virility, and military-like styles are considered masculine. Also, wearing shoes while naked, sexually accentuates the effect of nudity.
Roaming around the many disparate pairs exposed, the viewer observes the cultural changes and the transformation of shoes. With the development of technology and advanced methods of manufacturing, factories can make higher heels and more intricate shapes that could not be achieved before. Thus, there is more balance and a more graceful posture. The culture and history of a society play a significant role in footwear and its quality of transformation; our choice of shoes can reveal who we are.
Pairs of shoes for bound feet. Embroidered silk and cotton over wood. China, late 1800s.
Pompadour shoes. Brocaded silk over wooden heel. Paste buckles. France, 1750s.
Raven geta. Noritaka Tatehana (b. 1985). Velvet and yuzen-dyed leather over wood. Tokyo, 2009. Mojaris. Leather embroidered with gold thread and encrusted with emeralds, rubies, sapphires and diamonds. India, 1790-1890.
Ava platform sandal. Nicholas Kirkwood (b. 1980). Leather and lace. England, 2011.
Pair of tauranwari jutti sandals. Camel leather, plastic tinsel and acrylic wool. Pakistan, about 2011.