The Victoria and Albert Museum has opened up its extensive and unrivalled collection of shoes, for both men and women, (comprising of well over 2,000 pairs, spanning over 3,000 years from across the world and many on display for the first time) as well as other international collections and those of individual people, for its latest show, Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, which explores extremes of footwear from around the world from the present day, with 3D-printed shoes to, those owned or associated with figures such as Marilyn Monroe, Queen Victoria, Sarah Jessica Parker, David Beckham, the Duchess of Cambridge and Naomi Campbell through to antiquity with gold-decorated sandals from ancient Egypt in the 250 pairs on display. The show’s aim is to explore the “transformative power of extreme footwear as well as the euphoria and obsession they can inspire” and the culture significance of footwear.
Organised over two floors, with the lower floor gallery having a boudoir-style design with the displays examining three themes; transformation, status and seduction. The upper gallery is has a “laboratory-style” format where all the processes involved in the construction of shoes is examined.
The tension between comfort and contortion is at the centre of Pleasure and Pain, with lotus shoes (only 10cm long, made of embroidered fine silk) for the bound feet of Chinese concubines and the stilt-like 28.5 cm tall 18C Egyptian Qabaqib (bath clogs) used to keep the wearer’s feet off the slippery floor of a bathhouse on display on lower floor in contrast to the sneakers on show in the brightly-lit, and more functional first floor.
On display here are sketches, materials, shoe lasts and video-ed interviews with show designers-extraordinaire Manolo Blahnik, Sandra Choi, Marc Hare, Caroline Groves and Christian Louboutin. There is also a cabinet with a single shoe from the collection of Imelda Marcos of shoe collection infamy.
An installation including shoes worn by the last Khan of Mongolia, the Queen Mother, Madame Pompadour, Sarah Jessica Parker, a pair of embellished Prada sandals, Queen Victoria and the Duchess of Cambridge. Image courtesy of the V&A
In recent years, an appreciation of footwear has become more of a mainstream and worn-out pleasure, the challenge for the Museum was to mount a show with verve and originality, offering fresh insight into (what can be somewhat warped) our relationship with shoes
The challenge for the V&A is to use its unrivalled collection to bring something new to the topic. As its title suggests, Pleasure and Pain attempts to bring a fresh angle by dint of a full-frontal view of the perversity and strangeness of our relationship with shoes.
by Caroline Simpson