Carrie Bradshaw, Run DMC, Louis XIV, and Cinderella have very little in common. They’re different sexes. They lived centuries and continents apart—in fact, some of them live only in fiction.
But there’s a tie that binds this motley crew: a famous pair of shoes—or two.
That’s why each of them is featured in “Shoes: Pleasure and Pain” at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Running through January 31, 2016, the special exhibition traces millennia of bittersweet, complex relationships between humans and their footwear.
Drawing from a host of cultures, ranging from the ancient Greeks to modern-day Jimmy Choo addicts, the exhibition asks what is it about shoes?
And by “it,” I mean, why have men and women throughout history put themselves through pain, voluntarily choosing to impair their movement, to put stylish things on their feet?
Moreover, why do we drops wads of cash to buy these accessories that rub against the dirty ground with every step we take?
These are good questions, but Shoes: Pleasure and Pain is coming off second best to the V&A’s other fashion show, the blockbuster Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty—which was mounted at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011—which lies just a few meters away.
However, by showcasing around 250 pairs from nearly every corner of the earth, Shoes: Pleasure and Pain offers key insights into humans’ obsession with footwear.
Drawing from Louis XIV to Louboutins, it examines why a passion for shoes is one of the most transcendent sartorial trends.
From classic fairy tales like Cinderella to “modern folklore on the football field,” the exhibition claims that shoes are imbued with “transformative powers.”
Whether it is glass slippers making Cinderella fit for royal romance or soccer cleats that “allow men to leap past opponents as well as their own humble origins to become modern demi-gods,” we (literally) buy into the mythology surrounding shoes’ power.
For example, Air Jordans’ forebear were the magic “seven league boots” that 17th-century French fairy tale character Hop-o-My-Thumb snags to save his family from poverty and ogre attacks.
A pair of Indian men’s shoes dating from as far back as the 18th century is beautifully encrusted in emeralds, rubies, sapphires, and diamonds.
The exhibition dwells just as easily in the present day, illustrating Run DMC’s and their passion for Adidas, which not only inspired their 1986 track “My Adidas,” but also, as Robin Mellery-Pratt at Business of Fashion called it, “the birth of hip hop sneakers culture.”
Meanwhile, Lenny Kravitz and Russell Brand have been known to rock platform heels.
While heels are usually associated with women, their effect works for both sexes. They also seek to say something about our class.
Throughout history and across the globe, the highest social castes (and their wannabes) have voluntarily worn ornate, nearly-impossible to walk in shoes that convey the simple fact that they don't need to walk or move because manual labor is so beneath them.
“Shoes at their most basic are intended to aid one or our most practical functions—transport—have come to hold such symbolic and aesthetic importance,” the exhibition’s curator, Helen Perrson, said in an email interview with The Daily Beast.
Manolo Blahnik stilettos lie in close proximity to a pair of gold leaf-covered Egyptian shoes that date back as early as 300 A.D. They are both status markers of their societies.
In the modern day, a working woman may scrimp and save for a coveted pair of Manolo’s over a pair of pumps that wear just as well for a fraction of the cost because she wants that Cinderella effect, that princess transformation as soon as she slips them on.
If one wants to witness the genuine princess effect, the Duchess of Cambridge’s nude pumps are also on display, as are the molds for the shoes custom-made for the Queen.
The second level of the exhibition highlights three massive shoe collections that come from civilians.
Those who came to fawn over the shoes that have more precious jewels than Tiffany’s, or be titillated by the wooden thongs worn by Japanese prostitutes in the 1920s, may find these sections a bit boring.
But they are also endearing. A collection of shoes from a Ms. Katie Porter included her personalized names for them.
A pair of sapphire-colored, sequined peep toe heels with bows on it are called “Blue Glitter First Night Date Shoes.” Who among us hasn’t given special labels to beloved shoes, even if we never utter them aloud?
But the pleasure of shoes is never far from the pain. I winced upon seeing the shoes worn by Chinese women who bound their feet. You cannot imagine fitting more than a thumb or toe into them, let alone an entire foot.
At the same time, these women were admired and valued for cultivating their tiny feet. They may have even afforded new social and economic opportunities for themselves and their families by binding their feet.
The exhibition closes with a quote from Cinderella: “One pair of shoes can change your life.” Sometimes, for the better. Sometimes, the worse.