“I wish they’d put the prices next to them,” I overheard a woman saying to her friend as she walked around the V&A’s new Shoes: Pleasure and Pain exhibition. It’s a fair point; an entire gallery devoted to footwear, and you can’t go home with a single pair. It’s the cruellest kind of window shopping imaginable.
According to the guide, there are about 200 pairs to be found in the exhibition, meaning a total of 400 individual shoes. And even for an inveterate footwear fan, that’s a lot to take in. Naturally, there are those originally worn by celebrities, like Lady Gaga’s angel wing booties, and designs that were once considered revolutionary by the fashion world, such as Salvatore Ferragamo’s famous ‘Invisible Sandals’, with their transparent nylon straps.
But that’s not all. There are boots, moccasins and slippers, there are stilettos, mules and sandals, there are cowboy boots, winkle-pickers, trainers and flapper heels. From pairs from Iran, India and ancient Egypt to shoes sported by kings, queens and noblemen or footwear formerly owned by cads and courtiers (complete with a coat or arms), there truly is a shoe for every taste.
Laid out in only the loosest order, you can be looking at fetish shoes one moment and admiring the boots that belonged to the consort of the last Khan of Mongolia the next. Vertiginous heels for the modern women share space with gold leaf embellished slippers from the ancient world; sequined pumps suitable for a 1950s cocktail party are paired with leather shoes worn by Turks at the declining end of the Ottoman empire.
Credit to the curators; they’ve unearthed an array of entertaining trivia about shoes over the centuries. You learn, for example, that the highest class Japanese prostitutes wore shoes with heels that reached the heady heights of more than 20cm, while in 18th century Europe, mules were associated with unrestrained sexuality because they so easily slipped off the feet. Meanwhile in the days before feminism, women were limited to the domestic realm by virtue of wearing satin slippers that were entirely unsuitable for outdoor life. Indeed, impractical shoes were a symbol of wealth, implying that the wearer lived an easy life without any need for rushing about.
From a social history perspective, it’s intriguing. We may rely on sheepskin-lined Uggs to get us through the winter, but in the Victorian era gentlewomen preferred rabbit lined carriage boots, while their compatriots across the water in Canada opted for smoked moose hide to protect their toes. It’s also a fascinating look at the evolution of style; a pair of gaudy leopard print, red heeled boots made me think of the fashion mistakes of the Spice Girls era: on closer inspection I learnt that they dated back to wartime austerity and were made by a Kensington shoemaker from a client’s old coat.
What becomes clear, as you wander past rows of embroidered slippers and clunky boots, is that footwear has never been about function over fashion. Every so often, magazine editors report that this season marks a return to ‘sensible’, with flat, comfortable footwear back in vogue. But the shoes on show at the V&A disprove the notion that past generations had better sense. Officials in the Qing Dynasty wore enormous boots with seven centimetre soles that cost as much as a servant’s annual wages and couldn’t even be walked in. Meanwhile royals from one century Indian dynasty wore slippers with vast curled over toes, encrusted with emeralds, rubies, sapphires and diamonds.
Nor is it a new phenomenon for shoes to cause the wearer anguish in the name of style. Most famously, Chinese women suffered the torture of footbinding, but at other times men and women wore styles that seemed intended to deform, such as the pointed poulaine shoes that were on trend in 14th century Europe and invariably led to bunions.
It’s all unashamedly populist; the Vivienne Westwood blue platforms that Naomi Campbell famously plummeted from on the catwalk are there to gawk at, while nude heels worn by the Queen Mother in the 1950s are placed knowingly beside Kate’s beloved LK Bennetts. I counted at least two references to Carrie Bradshaw (Manolos and Jimmy Choos), and even those famous fairytale shoe-lovers Dorothy and Cinderella get their moment to shine.
Every so often, a sign suggests shoes can be transformational, or that they convey some inherent truth about the wearer. Which may well be the case, but the message I took from this frivolous but fun exhibition was that, fringed or strappy, furry or jewelled, shoes are a thoroughly ancient obsession. And in enthusing about a new pair of Manolos, we are doing nothing short of communing with our ancestors.
Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, V&A until 31 January 2016