Shoes Pleasure and Pain book Helen Persson

Trends are not confined to mortals: a book review on the V&A’s Shoes: Pleasure and Pain


It is a rite of passage for any child to spend afternoons tottering around in their mother’s heels or father’s brogues. When attempting to emanate the stature of either parent, the right shoes complete the pretence. Early in life, we are aware of shoes and their effect on one’s persona.

Fast-forward twenty years and choosing a pair of shoes is now a subconscious process. A momentary head scratch in front of the wardrobe each morning takes little time; just enough to consider comfort and coordination.

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, a book published by the V&A to accompany the exhibition, returns the reader to a time when selecting one’s footwear was a conscious, deliberate action. It investigates a time when shoes were fundamental to one’s social position, no matter the pain they induced.

The photograph on the front cover, an image from Helmut Newton’s 1995 shoot High and Mighty, effectively introduces the compromise of pain for beauty. It is a striking image of a model; immobilised by her high heels, she relies on crutches and male support to climb stairs. Despite the suggested crippling nature of her shoes, the heels remain strapped to her feet. What’s more, the model looks down at the camera with an expression of indifference that verges on disregard.

The model’s visage suggests she is empowered by her footwear, elevated in height and status. Her elongated legs, narrow ankles and amplified behind exemplify the desired effect of heels. The male role adopts an ulterior motive; their guidance takes on an aggressive insistence. She is an object of desire; a coveted woman of stature and status. Her pain assists her pleasure; the glamour is in her shoes

An authoritative guide with striking visuals, Shoes: Pleasure and Pain offers a collection of essays that delivers extensive research on the evolution of the shoe. The illustrated reference book addresses the relationship between the two predominant features of footwear: pleasure and pain. These aspects are examined in the history and future of footwear.

Stretching 2000 years, the book explores ’The Allure of Shoes’, ‘Art and Innovation’ and ‘Shoe Obsession’. With a range of subtopics from fetishism, foot binding and futuristic 3-D print designs, Shoes: Pleasure and Pain depicts the significance of footwear worldwide, and the pain it caused many to ensure the coexistence of style and status.

Helen Persson, the curator of the V&A exhibition, is the editor of the hardback accompaniment. She contributed two essays alongside sixteen leading experts in fashion, art and history. From Valerie Steele, Director and Chief Curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology to Cally Blackman who teaches fashion history at Central Saint Martin’s, the authors cover a breadth of expertise. In addition to their articles, the book lists an informative four-page bibliography. This is a further valuable resource for fashion students or anyone looking to extend their knowledge of footwear.

Perrson opens her introductory essay ‘Objects of Desire: The Cult of Shoes’ with a quote from the Song of Solomon: ‘How beautiful are thy feet in shoes…!’ Following King Solomon’s exclamation about the feet of the Prince’s daughter, he describes her legs, navel, waist, breasts, neck, eyes, nose and hair. It is her feet that first draw his attention, which then inform his appreciation for her remaining features.

Alongside this biblical reference of a voyeuristic appreciation for footwear, the various contributors stretch their research across the globe. This includes the examination of the Asian tradition of foot binding in ‘Lotus Steps: Shoes for Bound Feet’, Ottoman bath clogs in ‘Status and Power in the Hammam’ and the emblematic red shoes of Louis XIV’s court in ‘Men in Heels: From Power to Perversity’. The pain and pleasure of shoes is a transcontinental fascination.

Shoes Pleasure and Pain book Helen Persson Shoes Pleasure and Pain book Helen Persson Shoes Pleasure and Pain book Helen Persson

The V&A’s book examines the longevity of humanity’s captivation with footwear. It is an interest spanning millenniums. From the late first century BC, a terracotta statue of Aphrodite survives with the Greek goddess sporting a pair of chopines. Trends are not confined to mortals.

The book further explores toppling heels of fifteenth century Europe, the rounded toes of seventeenth century India and the suffragettes’ modest heel in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. All these are pictured in an array of images that complement the text. A glossary provides further aid understanding of each shoe type.

With rapid developments in technology, the twenty-first century is expected to further birth innovative shoes. The book moves on from historical analyses to the future of footwear in ‘Open Futures’. Shoe advancement is racing ahead from brogues inlaid with GPS, 3-D printed heels and the Adidas Primeknit football boots with built-in socks. The innovative experiments offer a glimpse into the future of shoe design, displaying stimulating inspiration for aspiring designers.

The gradual reduction of the relative cost of shoes allows many today to have large collections; a luxury in the past limited to the wealthiest of walkers. Whether you possess a cupboard of five, fifty or five hundred pairs, Shoes: Pleasure and Pain provides an interesting exploration from ancient history to current culture, from the significance of style to the future of footwear.

Indeed Shoes: Pleasure and Pain offers much to everyone, delivering further insight alongside the V&A’s exhibition. Aspiring shoe designers can study footwear’s evolution and treasure the detailed breakdown of shoe parts. Fashion students can be reinstated with the significance of shoes as a means of shaping style and tradition. Others, whether collector, coveter or simple enthusiast, can re-kindle their bond to footwear and rediscover its empowering capabilities.

Title: Shoes: Pleasure and Pain

Author: Helen Persson
Publisher: V&A Publishing
Language: English
Hardcover: 176 pages
Dimensions: 24.8 x 27.9 cm

ISBN: 9781851778324
Published: 2015
Shoes: Pleasure and Pain can be purchased from the Victoria & Albert’s online shop

Shoes Pleasure and Pain book Helen Persson




Written by Sophie Soar

Sophie Soar

Sophie is an English Literature student at the University of Manchester. She developed an interest in writing at a young age and hopes to pursue a career in journalism. As a portrait artist, she has a creative mind that she enjoys expressing within her written work. Sophie is also a contributor to the Fashion and Arts sections of an online magazine ‘NAME’.
A self-proclaimed city girl, Sophie splits her time between Manchester and London with a love for the vibrant character of each city. She enjoys returning to her hometown in the Wiltshire countryside when taking a break from her studies