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How Marie-Antoinette’s Tiny Feet Inspired an Entire Exhibition


“Marche et Démarche” at the Arts Décoratifs in Paris looks at the evolution of footwear design through the years. BY FLEUR BURLET

PARIS — It was upon discoverin­g a pair of tiny 18th-century shoes in the archives of the Arts Décoratifs in Paris that curator Denis Bruna got the idea for the museum's latest exhibition: The shoes, which were worn by Marie-Antoinette in 1792, measured 21-cm. by 5-cm., correspond­ing to a European size 33.

“How was it possible for a 37-year-old woman to put her adult feet in such a tiny shoe,” wondered Bruna, speaking at the press preview of “Marche et Démarche,” or “Walk and Gait” in English, on Wednesday, which runs until Feb. 23.

“We realized that the shoes that we had in our archives from the 17th century to mid-19th century were all extraordin­arily small and thin,” he continued. “It prompted us to wonder how our relationsh­ip to shoes and the act of walking has evolved throughout history.”

By studying historical documents such as personal diaries, the curator discovered that aristocrat­ic women like Marie-Antoinette and her court used to bind their toes in order to fit in tiny shoes, or simply wear half of them — the front part, just visible under their billowing skirts — which gave them a tottering, bird-like gait.

At the time small feet were a symbol of nobility, a fact that can also be perceived in literature. In Charles Perrault's “Cinderella,” which was published in 1677, the title character is a delicate aristocrat with small feet able to fit in a fragile glass slipper, whereas her coarse sisters' big feet are a symbol of their lack of education and refinement.

Such are the discoverie­s that visitors of “Marche et Demarche” can make when taking in the 450 pairs of shoes — including designs by contempora­ry names such as Roger Vivier, Christian Louboutin and Raf Simons for Dior — and 100 historical documents that make up the exhibition. It becomes apparent early on in the visit that until the end of the 19th century, society was divided between those who walked and those who didn't.

“As a rule, the higher castes of society simply didn't walk,” explained Bruna. “Men were actually the first to wear heels in the

17th century — they made it easier to fit feet in stirrups when horse riding — but they were impossible to walk in, especially given how dangerous the streets were at the time.”

Heels were adopted by women at the end of the 17th century, which makes sense as up until the end of the 19th century, women of nobility were expected to stay at home to do sedentary activities such as embroidery or reading. “Basically until 1880, comfort was completely absent from footwear for high society,” Bruna said.

This wasn't just the rule for Western societies. The exhibition makes a point of featuring footwear from all continents and cultures: Visitors will gawk at sword-shaped wooden sandals that used to belong to the king of Jimma in 1890s Ethiopia, “koma geta” sandals with towering platforms worn by Japanese high-class prostitute­s during the Edo period and Chinese “golden lotus” shoes for banded feet, some of them measuring only 8-cm. long.

Contempora­ry designs can also be spotted in the exhibition, such as Adidas Stan

Smith trainers and the fetishisti­c Christian Louboutin vertical pumps designed in collaborat­ion with David Lynch, as well as a few historical pieces, like the comically long black leather brogues worn by Charlie Chaplin. Visitors can also try their luck at walking in some of the more extravagan­t pairs to witness firsthand just how much footwear design has evolved over the centuries.

“Shoes and clothes are indistingu­ishable from movement and the staging of the self,” writes Olivier Gabet, director of the Arts Décoratifs, in the book accompanyi­ng the exhibition. “Narrow shoes that only allow to take baby steps, heels that make women walk on the tip of their toes or high platforms that make the wearer look like a pendulum all contribute to the creation of a specific look.”

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Donna Tartt
Howard Buffett and Lili Buffett Donna Tartt
 ??  ?? “Marche et Démarche” at the Arts Décoratifs museum runs until Feb. 23.
“Marche et Démarche” at the Arts Décoratifs museum runs until Feb. 23.
 ??  ?? Marie-Antoinette’s shoe from 1792.
Marie-Antoinette’s shoe from 1792.

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