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Photo by Andrew Bradley

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain

14 June 2015 Imogen Greenberg

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain is the latest exhibition offering from the V & A. London Calling headed down to see what all the footwear fuss is about.

How much is there to say, you might wonder, about shoes? But, true to form, the V & A have produced an opulent exhibition full of luxury fashion choices, which as with all fashion carries the weight of cultural significance.

According to the exhibition curator, Helen Persson, “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.”

As you enter the exhibition, you fall in to the closeted darkness of a boudoir, with plush carpets and heavy drapery. The exhibition is laid out thematically. Persson explains “in each case you will see juxtaposed shoes from different periods and different cultures. I do hope these parallels will show unexpected connections.”

There are plenty of examples of pleasure in this exhibition, embellished and embroidered shoes from all cultures, which are expensive markers of social status. Showing off through shoes, particularly in high society, resonates across cultures.

But as the title of the exhibition suggests, shoes are just as often about pain as pleasure. There is a pair of chopine’s from Venice with a towering platform. Chopine shoes could be over 50 cm tall. Just like the enormous height of the shoes worn by Japanese Geishas, the debilitation of trying to walk in these shoes forced a slow, elegant walk, possible only with assistance, often from maids. These shoes offer an insight in to unusual ideals of beauty, which take fashion to physical extremes. Likewise, Chinese foot binding was a practice that saw young girls have their feet manipulated through binding to be small and dainty. The shoes on display are devastatingly small, as the ideal length for a woman’s foot was just 7.6 cm.

The exhibition does not just look at social history, but fantasy too. Fairytales are the most pervasive of these fantasies, myths about the transformative power of shoes. The best example is the Cinderella story, with comparative tales from cultures from native America to Japan. It was Disney that made Cinderella’s glass slipper famous and the showcase culminates with the glass and Swarovski crystal slipper worn by Lily James in Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 remake of the Disney classic.

From childhood fantasy, the exhibition takes a darker turn. Tucked away behind a heavy red velvet curtain is a section on seduction. Giggles and footsteps echo, as red lights evoke the well-known districts of the same name. It explores how the fashion of courtesans across the world influenced fashion choices outside of the closeted boudoir. Called ‘porn-chic’ by the curators, it shows how foot fetishes, stripper heels and knee-high laced boots have crept in to popular fashion.

Projected on to the wall, reels of film clips show how shoes have been used to evoke characters, the scenes since becoming iconic. Through a peephole, Dorothy snaps her red glittery heels to find her way home. Carrie and Mr Big reconcile in Sex and the City, over a pair of Manolo Blanik’s. Older offerings come from Gene Kelly splashing his tap shoes through puddles in Singing in the Rain, and Marilyn Monroe tottering down a train platform in Some Like it Hot.

The second half of the exhibition is a revelation, especially after the draped darkness of the first half. The mezzanine is light and airy, and changes the focus from wearers to designers and makers. This is the anatomy of the shoe, pulling apart heels, soles and uppers so you can see the process from sketch to completion. It also explores how modern technology is playing its part. There is a pair of DIY shoes, which the wearer slots together from pieces of acrylic like an Ikea flat pack. Another pair was made using a 3D printer earlier this year.

In the final revelation of the exhibition, the collector steps forward, the shoe obsessive who hoards hundreds of pairs. These collectors are not just famous artists or socialites, but ordinary people too. One collector, Robert, is one of the world’s leading ‘Three Stripes’ collectors, with over 800 pairs of Adidas trainers, mostly vintage. Why? Because they remind him of growing up in London, surrounded by friends all wearing these trainers. After all, this exhibition is not just about leather and laces but the people who wear shoes, or rather don’t wear them.

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain is full of rich content, and spans cultures and time periods effortlessly, drawing on the V & A’s wide collection. It plays on social conventions and fashion trends, with nostalgic recollections as well as surprising new stories. The V & A has produced another fashion blockbuster, so you had better start queuing now.

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain runs until 31st January 2016. For more information and to book tickets, please see their website.
 

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