What can shoes tell us about history? Well quite a lot, actually. Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, a new exhibition at the V&A juxtaposes modern, crowd-pleasing creations from Louboutin, Blahnik, Choo, Gina and more alongside historical artefacts that span more than 2,000 years. To emphasise that these items of adoration also have a practical purpose, each exhibit is presented as a pair – a small detail but one that elevates this collection to something more than a pop-culture pleaser.
The exhibition opens conventionally enough, examining the literal transformative power of footwear through a series of Cinderella slippers, including the magnificent ‘glass’ Swarovski versions costume designer Sandy Powell created for the fairy tale’s latest big-screen adaptation. But this isn’t just an exhibition about women’s footwear: in the same case you’ll also find David Beckham’s football boots. Transformation isn’t always about beauty – it’s about power too.
Of course, part of the allure of high heels is the power they give to the wearer. Ideas about status and what it means to be able to wear shoes that are crippling, are threaded through the first half of the exhibition, alongside changing perceptions of sex and seduction. In a later display, buttoned-up Victorian fetish boots jostle for attention with a pair of black patent Yves Saint Laurent Tributes, and some towering geta shoes with soles more than 20cm high. The delivery might have changed, but the message through the ages is clear: shoes signify sexual empowerment or a passive source of pleasure.
Some showy creations – including the infamous Vivienne Westwood blue platforms worn by Naomi Campbell in 1993, some Sex and The City Blahnik’s and a pair of Kylie’s stage shoes – emphasise the key messages of the exhibition, but most of the pleasure can be found in seeking out the faded, well-worn exhibits that fade into the background by offer rich context. There are simple leather duckbills (wide-toed leather creations with slits to show off colourful hose, worn by men at 16th century court), sandals from ancient Egypt and a pair of ornate wedding padukas from India, elevated to allow the bride to stand out from the crowd. In spite of the sex and the status, that’s one thing this exhibition perhaps unintentionally suggests – our ancestors were just like us.
Upstairs, the intimate boudoir setting of the early rooms gives way to a minimalist space, a backdrop for exploring the design and making process. A disassembled Superba, designed by Christian Louboutin, reveals complex layers and a jigsaw-like crafting process. Laid out flat, the shoe retains little of its power. Around the corner, several shoe aficionados prove just how far the obsession can go; Robert’s ‘Three Stripe’ collection includes more than 800 pairs of Adidas trainers, at the time of his death in 1969, Lionel Ernest Bussey’s collection topped 600 pairs, almost all new and unworn.
Shoes: Pleasure and Pain might be a shrine to shoes, but it’s also an exploration of their importance outside of fashion trends, a resounding argument that they’re so much more than what goes on your feet. Perhaps something to consider the next time you purchase a new pair…
Shoes: Pleasure and Pain is at the V&A from 13 June to 31 January 2016. For more information and to buy tickets, see the Victoria & Albert Museum’s website.