Monday, 30 November -0001


Beautiful and sculptural, shoes have long been the most evocative, and impractical, aspects of our dress, as Helen Persson reveals

Written by Helen Persson
They are powerful indicators of the wearer’s gender, class, status, identity, taste and even sexual preference. They are at once commodities and aesthetic artefacts. Feet are made for walking, but shoes may not be and, throughout the centuries and across cultures, impractical footwear – for both men and women – has denoted a privileged and leisurely lifestyle. The choice of design, materials and decoration makes such shoes unsuitable for manual labour or even walking.

The subject of Shoes: Pleasure And Pain, the new exhibition at the V&A Museum, focuses on the status of shoes as objects of desire, globally and throughout history. The different meanings of shoes are deeply embedded in our psyche from childhood. Extraordinary shoes feature as magical objects in stories and folklore from all over the world from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes to Dorothy’s ruby slippers in The Wizard Of Oz – and modern myths include the concept of fairytale shoemakers, whose shoes will magically transform the life of the wearer. The most global and perhaps the oldest shoe story, however, concerns the beautiful girl whose shoes help to elevate her to a superior social position: Cinderella.

VA-Shoes-02-5903. Gilded and incised leather and papyrus sandal, Egypt, circa 30BC to AD300. 4. ‘Nova’ shoes in rubber, fi breglass and leather, by Zaha Hadid for United Nude, 2013. 5. Wedding toeknob paduka, silver and gold over wood, India, 1800s. 6. Green damask shoes from the 1750s and the round label of shoemaker Gresham on the insole

Historically, footwear has been a privilege of the affluent. Without practical purpose, shoes become performance pieces, whose appearance in the public sphere can transform a person into a king or a priest. Well into the 20th century, lower social classes wore shoes only for special occasions.

In ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, footwear was the prerogative of the ruling class; slaves were not allowed to wear sandals, as their masters did. They were symbols of domination, from the red-heeled men’s shoes of Louis XIV’s court or the black platform boots of mandarin officials of the Chinese emperor, to the elaborately embroidered moccasins worn by the Iroquois elite. The insole of a papyrus sandal dated to the late Pharaonic or early Roman Egypt, in the collection of the V&A, has been embellished with near-pure gold and would have made a rather emphatic statement about the wearer’s status.

Shoes have been the most consistent example, across socio-economic groups, of fashion that ignores actual human anatomy – distorting the feet. Today, even shoes that claim to be ergonomic usually have rounded or square toes, not reflecting the actual angled arrangement of the toes, and further emphasising that the aesthetically pleasing has nothing to do with the practical and functional.

VA-Shoes-03-5907. ‘High & Mighty’ shoot, American Vogue, February 1995. 8. Chopines made of kid leather over carved pine, Venice, circa 1600

Nothing is new. Shoe finds from medieval archaeological sites in London reveal that their wearers suffered from bunions and hammertoes.

Height is perhaps the most noticeable signifier of status and examples of elevating footwear can be found all over the world, making their wearers stand above the crowd. The pedestallike chopine of late-15th to early-17th-century Europe, which was particularly popular in Italy and Spain, transformed upper-class women into towering figures, sometimes so exceptionally high that maids had to be used as human crutches.

It has been suggested that some men exhibit an almost Pavlovian response to the sight of a woman in high heels. The sexualisation of high-heeled shoes, especially, exerts a constant fascination on the popular imagination, and a particular way of walking – epitomised by the stiletto wiggle of Marilyn Monroe. Chinese foot-binding resulted in a mincing gait similar to that fashioned by modern high heels. However impossible it may seem to us today, women with bound feet did move about, as evidenced by footage in anthropological films and also as testified to by the women themselves.

Exclusivity has always been important. A pair of stylish green damask shoes from the 1750s are the earliest shoes in the collection of the V&A to incorporate a shoemaker label. The label reads: ‘Gresham/at the Crown in/York-Street/Covent Garden/London/ Removed from Tavistock Street’.

VA-Shoes-04-590Caroline Groves ‘Parakeet’ shoes with feathers and solid silver talons and heel tips

Frenchman Jean-Louis François Pinet was perhaps the first celebrity shoemaker, famous for his slim and elegant Louis XIV heels. These trademark heels would have been instantly recognisable. The shoe trinity of Manolo Blahnik, Jimmy Choo and Christian Louboutin are the comparable fairytale shoemakers of today, the popularity and influence of the television programme Sex And The City having made them three valuable assets.

But men and women do not collect or continue to buy shoes for their value as assets. It is for their sheer beauty and the knowledge of the craft that went into making them. We simply love shoes.

At the V&A until 31 January 2016: 020-7942 2000,
Edited extract from Shoes: Pleasure & Pain, edited by Helen Persson, published by V&A Publishing, £20.

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