‘It communicates an infectious naughtiness’
The Victoria & Albert Museum is home to some of the greatest art and design exhibitions on the globe. It boasts an expanse of permanent collections, from ceramics and statues, sculptures and fashion. Nestled amongst the latter, shrouded by purple curtains, you will find a multifaceted exhibition on footwear: Shoes: Pleasure and Pain.
Until the 31st January 2016, the V&A shows how shoes can simultaneously induce pleasure and pain. With ‘no concern for the practicalities of ordinary life’, the six-inch Louboutins of today and the chopines dating back half a millennium illustrate the continuous compromise of rationality for the sake of appearance. Shoes: Pleasure and Pain showcases footwear as objects of great beauty that can also cause extreme discomfort.
The curator of the exhibition, Helen Persson, describes the significance of shoes as ‘powerful indicators of gender, status, identity, taste and even sexual preference’. Showcasing over 250 pairs, the V&A’s exhibition displays a breadth of designs throughout time, presenting how these affected the wearer’s poise and prestige.
The exhibition is extensive, stretching into the farthest reaches of the history of shoe design and footwear culture. The modern household names including Manolo Blahnik and Roger Vivier are interspersed amongst historical artefacts of Ottoman bath clogs, Manchurian matidi shoes and the red heels of Louis XIV’s court.
On entering the exhibition, the mauve enclosure hints at the relationship between status and shoe. The colour is associated with sovereignty; its significance is reinforced by the display of a biblical quotation spoken by King Solomon, ‘How beautiful are thy feet in shoes…!’ The two features act as a reminder that shoes are a luxury; they are a fashion and occasionally an extravagance.
Regal gives way to the fantastical, as the exhibition explores the theme of fairy tales. One display shows various cultural adaptions of Cinderella‘s shoe. It is a narrative that ascribes footwear with transformative powers, a notion further explored in an animation shown on the V&A’s website.
Videos are further used within the exhibition, including one upon entry that extends the fairy tale theme. It depicts a woman wandering through the empty interior of a grand mansion; the camera never leaves her feet as she tries on various shoes. From playful leaps in pumps to an empowered stride in stilettoes, her outfit is transformed along with her attitude.
The video’s soundtrack of mystical music and clock chimes is punctuated with a seductive giggle. This accompanies the visitor into the secluded alcove entitled ‘Seduction’. In 2014, shoe designer Francesco Russo stated ‘sex equals power’. His assertion resounds in the lighting of ‘Seduction’: a flirtatious pink illuminates the regal purple. It communicates an infectious naughtiness.
The alcove displays provocative boudoir slippers and staggering platforms favoured by East Asian prostitutes; YSL stripper stilettoes and Westwood’s spike heels; homoerotic black leather boots and the shoes responsible for Marilyn Monroe’s seductive wiggle.
Amongst the beguiling footwear resides an image of Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s 1767 painting The Swing. Although depicting fully clothed proponents, the seduction of the scene is unmistakable as the woman kicks off her shoe in the air. Next to the Fragonard, an image from David Lynch’s 2007 series Fetish provokes a subtle yet fascinating comparison: that of the privately illicit teasing of the 18th century with the publically explicit sexuality of the 21st century. It marks the evolution in the nature of seduction and the shoe industry’s response to this.
The exhibition returns to displays of subdued sexuality and visitors are treated to footwear that has graced the feet of many a famed celeb. Queen Victoria’s pumps, Kate Middleton’s favoured LK Bennetts and the power boots of the Qing Dynasty represent shoes of royal origins. Kylie Minogue’s Prada racing shoes are placed alongside Sex and the City character Carrie Bradshaw’s iconic fairy tale Manolos.
Yet amongst the wedges and cowboy boots resides a pair of shoes that once belonged to an ordinary Asian woman who practised foot binding. Their miniscule size is an arresting sight. Exemplifying the acceptance of pain for beauty, it stands as a rebuke to any complaints about stiletto-induced cramp.
Alternating projections of moving footprints guide the visitors upstairs. The enveloping, warm aesthetic of ground level gives way to an open and bright space on the first floor.
It is a peculiar feeling to face a resolute presentation of footwear’s future; this is not a prediction but its categorical direction. Here, the elevated platform overlooking the V&A’s permanent fashion exhibits compounds the distance between the visitor and fashion’s past.
Persson fully utilises the space available, projecting footage of shoemaking into alternate domes of the V&A’s roof. The spacious platform suggests the limitless possibilities with the advancements in technology. As you enter the first section ‘Craft and Construction’, the space takes on a workroom environment. The samples of leather and video of shoe designs allow for an interactive experience.
Ideal for those considering a future in shoe design, the process of creation is presented broken down in its successive stages. From measuring foot shape (including the lasts of Princess Diana, Charlie Chaplin and Dita Von Teese) to shoe construction, each stage of production is explained. This includes examples of sketches, heel type, cut outs, samples, uppers, pullovers, and the ‘perfect’ heel.
Towards the end of the exhibition, a video of shoe designers (including Christian Louboutin and Prada’s Sandra Choi) provides insight into the process behind their creations. From Caroline Groves’ humble statement ‘I’m proud to be a craftsman’ to Blahnik’s disgust at the thought of electronic design, their personalities shine through.
For creators and coveters alike, the exhibition provides something for everyone. Aspiring designers can gain insight into the industry; historians can study an array of artefacts; collectors can envy the greatest collection to date.
A celebration of footwear for both men and women, Shoes: Pleasure and Pain is an exhibition worth a visit.
Shoes: Pleasure and Pain
On display until 31st January 2016
Every day (excluding Friday) 10am – 5:30pm, Friday 10am – 9:30pm
Adults £12, Students and Children (12-17) £9, Members and Children (Under 12) Free
Victoria and Albert Museum