A good pair of shoes has the power to elevate an outfit, to make the wearer feel special and demonstrate a piece of someone’s signature style. Shoes can be a source of comfort, pain, elegance and desire. Throughout history, the humble shoe has been a symbol of status and luxury around the globe, with the ability to communicate something about their owners without the use of words. The V&A is now presenting a global history of the shoe, presenting the viewer with a sumptuous display of footwear, which is certain to have at least one pair to appeal to every member of its audience.
Spread across two floors, the display showcases 200 pairs of shoes. Among these are sandals, boots, platforms dating as far back as Ancient Egypt to the present day. On the lower floor, shoes are displayed on podiums in dimly lit display cases underneath individual spotlights, which reinforce the notion that footwear can be luxurious, valuable and precious. Most of the shoes on display are undoubtedly beautiful, there are few examples of trainers or slippers among a magnitude of high heels, platforms and court shoes bedazzled with crystals, fringe and pom poms. Such famous shoe designers as Manolo Blahnik, Jimmy Choo and Louboutin are all on display among other offerings from Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood. Also on show is the Swarovski crystal glass slipper from the recent Cinderella movie beside footwear worn by royalty and celebrities.
There is also the creation of a display devoted to the shoe as an object of desire and fetish. This section forms a sort of ‘shoe boudoir’ with the addition of velvet curtains and the inclusion of lacey footwear and Christian Louboutin’s Ballerina Ultima shoes, with a heel so high, it would be nigh on impossible for anyone to walk in them without breaking their neck.
Speaking of painful footwear, this sentiment is echoed in the extreme sense with the inclusion of various 19th-century Chinese shoes made for bound feet. These shoes are undeniably beautiful and decorated with silk. However, at less than 8cm long a pair, one can only imagine the undeniable pain the women who wore them must have been in. As well as Chinese history, we learn about the footwear of choice in Ancient Greece, Persia and Egypt, not only worn by women, but men also, proving that a penchant for shoes, is not only something held by women.
Upstairs, the V&A has displayed a number of shoe collections amassed by various people worldwide. Among these are a collection of adidas trainers and another collection of shoes from high street shops. Here the museum excels in conveying that a shoe does not have to come with a hefty price tag or a designer label to be an item of value to its owner. Also on display here is an explanation of the economic power of the shoe and its status in history as well as how a shoes are actually made. Here various heels and shoe designs are on show, including some of the stunning Rayne heels that are also currently on display at Fashion and Textile Museum.
This show is an eye-opener and stunningly beautiful. With a pair of shoes for everybody, it is certainly a case of one-size fits all!
Shoes: Pleasure and Pain is on display at V&A until 31 January 2016