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.

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