With their gold tassels, silver embroidery on silk and leather, these shoes weren’t made for walking. In 2010, when Helen Persson, curator of Chinese textiles and dress, Asian department, Victoria and Albert Museum in London, came across the pair, hidden deep in the vast India collection at the museum, she began to wonder about the ways in which shoes tell stories of their owners, of their makers and the times they lived in. This beautiful pair had once adorned the feet of the Nawab of Awadh in the 19th century, a wealthy man with the world at his beck and call. Three years later, Persson, 46, began to search for other interesting shoes in earnest and has now curated Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, an exhibition of footwear over the ages at the V&A Museum.
It comes as no surprise that a pair of sparkly, exquisitely cut crystal heels, created by Swarovski for the 2015 Disney film Cinderella, is the gateway to the exhibition — a testament to the transformative power of footwear to change the wearer’s fate. “Shoes are intimate objects. They are supposed to ease our way of moving around, but often work as symbols of wealth and power. This exhibition explores the power of shoes, how they reveal status and privilege,” says Persson.
Spread across two floors of the museum, the exhibits are organised into three segments — transformation, status and seduction. In their transformative avatar, shoes are magical objects, tales of their power passed on through fairy tales and folklore. “Children are told shoes can change your life or destroy you, and can elevate you to higher social standing,” says Persson. “In ancient Rome, slaves were not allowed to wear sandals; it was a privilege reserved for their masters. If you wore shoes, you were no longer a slave,” she says.
The exhibition also showcases impractical shoes that are supported by privileged lifestyles. “When you wear heels, your back straightens and your body image changes. You project a totally different image from the one you do when you wear flip-flops,” she says. The seduction section explores the concept of footwear as a representation of sexual empowerment and pleasure.
Among the 250 pairs of shoes that have been gathered from more than 20 countries, the highlights range from a 2,000-year-old pair of Egyptian gold sandals to gravity-defying Chopines or platforms worn in Spain and Italy in the 16th century, a colourful pair of tiny Chinese slippers for those with bound feet, and a silver Paduka, a toe-knob sandal that once served as a wedding present to a bride in 19th century India. This pair is mainly ceremonial, designed to make the bride stand out, so that she could be easily spotted and admired.
There are shoes by legendary design houses as well — Prada, Louboutin, Jimmy Choo and Sophia Webster — and creations by A-list designers such as Manolo Blahnik and Salvatore Ferragamo. British shoes are represented by the sky-high Vivienne Westwood purple platforms that caused Naomi Campbell to stumble on the ramp in Paris in 1993; former England football captain David Beckham’s shoe is personalised with his son Brooklyn’s name. There’s the golden “Angel Wings” by Alexander McQueen, a pair of ostentatiously towering heels that were once worn by Lady Gaga, and golden ballerinas owned by Queen Victoria. These shoes have been sourced from the museum’s personal archives, along with loans from individuals and institutions such as the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, Canada.
The exhibition is on till January, 2016
The story appeared in print with the headline A While in Their Shoes