Shoes: Pleasure and Pain

Sandra Westbrooke takes a look at a new exhibition at the V&A that explores our ongoing love affair with shoes.

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What other item of clothing can inspire such happiness, yet cause such agony? Who hasn’t said ‘yes’ to an apparently perfect pair of shoes, only to be suffering a short time later? Why would anyone spend a fortune on footwear that doesn’t protect and support? And how have they become objects of obsession?

To answer these questions – and more – the V&A has brought together 200 pairs of historic and contemporary shoes from around the world. And it seems our desire for beautiful footwear isn’t new. Among the exhibits is a pair of elegant leather sandals from ancient Egypt. Decorated with gold leaf, they’re a luxury item, which 2000 years ago were designed to carry the wearer through palaces and temples, rather than the burning sand of the desert. Interestingly, the earliest-known version of the Cinderella story is set in Egypt and dates from the 1st century BC: an eagle snatches the shoe of a bathing beauty and drops it in the lap of the king. He goes in search of its owner and marries her. (Similar tales are also found in Asia, Europe and in the indigenous cultures of the Americas.) Did the owner of those gilded sandals dream of footwear that would help her find love and change her life for ever?

This theme of transformation runs through the exhibition’s opening section. The concept of shoes being empowering is illustrated not just by a glittering Swarovski crystal slipper, made for the Disney film of Cinderella, but also by another fairytale: that of the Seven League Boots. These help the poor Hop-o-my Thumb leap across the countryside and make a fortune so his family can live happily ever after. Today, such fables feed into marketing. Buy a pair of football boots like David Beckham’s and you too might be able to dash past opponents and become a hero. Put on a pair of Manolo Blahniks or Louboutins and you could become part of an exclusive club.

Exhibition curator Helen Persson admits freely to being in love with footwear: “Shoes are one of the most telling aspects of dress. Beautiful, sculptural objects, they are also powerful indicators of gender, status, identity, taste and even sexual preference. Our choice in shoes can help project an image of who we want to be.”

This idea is explored fully in the exhibition’s Status section. Here we can see how impractical shoes – often almost impossible to walk in – become an indicator of a privileged and leisurely lifestyle. In India, the ruler of Hyderabad had shoes encrusted with emeralds, rubies, diamonds and sapphires. Fashionable women in 16th century Venice tottered round in platform shoes (chopines) that could reach 60cm in height. Perfect for posing, but to go anywhere you had to be supported by your husband or your maids. A modern interpretation of these by Vivienne Westwood saw supermodel Naomi Campbell take that memorable tumble on a Paris catwalk in 1993. (The heels of her blue ‘Super-elevated Ghillie’ were only 21cm high.) Even a sleek stiletto, while helping you to literally stand up above the crowd, requires care in walking – though the Duchess of Cambridge, whose nude platform courts by L.K. Bennett are on display, seems to have mastered the art perfectly.

Another extreme shoe fashion came with the 19th century Chinese practice of foot binding. While a tiny foot was regarded as a sign of great beauty, it also restricted movement, confining high-ranking women to the home. The shoes on display, just a few centimetres long, are opulent, made with silk and lavishly embroidered. But to be able to fit these, girls spent years with their toes bent under and bones broken – a high price for becoming desirable.

The Seduction section of the exhibition has the feeling of a boudoir, with velvet curtains and red lighting. Here are shoes designed to entice, to be worn in private. Extreme heels and tight-laced leather boots are on display, as well as examples of erotic styles channelled by mainstream fashion in recent years. There’s even a pair with the heel bent underneath so walking is impossible – the wearer would have to crawl.

Today the footwear industry is entirely globalised, leading to great changes in manufacture and consumption. The makers of trainers have led the way. In 1986 China supplied just eight per cent of the market – now six out of ten pairs come from there. In the upstairs part of the exhibition is a fascinating display of the processes involved in designing and creating a shoe. It also looks at current experiments with material and shapes, moulding and plastics. Some shoes push the boundaries of possibility. Julian Hakes has created a show-stopping blue and orange sandal where a single piece of carbon fibre wraps around the foot like a twist of lemon peel, hence the name ‘Mojito’. Using 3D printing, injection moulding and scanning, the design supports the heel and ball of the foot with no footplate in between. 3D printing technology is also used for the black lattice-like enclosure of another shoe, by Andreia Chaves. Could this be the future of footwear?

The exhibition ends with a look at why some people amass vast collections of shoes they may never wear. Imelda Marcos, widow of the former Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos, left behind some 3000 pairs when she fled Manila after an uprising in 1986. On display are her black, embellished slingbacks, on loan from a Canadian museum. Her name is written inside. More strange is the story of Lionel Ernest Bussey, who bought women’s shoes from high street shops from about 1914 until his death in 1969. By then, his collection totalled some 600 pairs – all new and unworn, many still boxed up with their receipts. He took his collecting seriously, and wanted them preserved for posterity – fifty pairs were bequeathed to the V&A.

Also featured is Robert Brooks. One of the world’s leading ‘Three Stripe’ collectors, his affair with Adidas began as a teenager. He now owns 800 pairs of the company’s trainers, most of them vintage. For him, a big part of collecting is that the shoes remind him of friends and good times growing up in London. He’s travelled the world for rare items, though these are becoming increasingly hard to track down. But the hunt for that special pair is part of the pleasure – and when he has them, it’s doubtless the start of a life-long relationship.

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, is sponsored by Clarks, Agent Provocateur and the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers, which supports fledgling shoe designers. It runs until 31 January 2016. Tickets £12 (concessions available).