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Shoes – Pleasure and Pain – Review

October 18, 2015

Shoes Pleasure and Pain Review: The Shoes: Pleasure and Pain exhibition should really be titled Shoes: It’s All Been Done Before or possibly People in the Past and From Different Countries Were Fancy Too, You Know.

Shoes Pleasure and Pain Review

This is because it is the whole point of the exhibition: look! Here are 17th Century chopines, platform slippers from Venice that were so tall you needed an attendant to lean on whilst you walked. Here are 19th century wedding platform paduka, from India, a type of sandal which is just a base with a toe knob to grip on to. Oh yes, platform sandals from a Greek bath house, and dizzyingly tall geta thong sandals from turn of the century Japan, worn by top geisha. Here, an iron contraption that looks like a horseshoe with attached stilt, to be strapped onto shoes in 18th century England.


All of these elevations were originally designed for a practical reason: to raise the wearer above a dirty street (or bath house floor for the Greeks) and in most cases evolved to impractical heights which made it very tricky to walk far.

Posh People Don’t Walk far

And this was exactly the point: these people did not need to walk far as they had other people to run errands for them, so they didn’t need practical shoes.


Perhaps the most amusing example of this idea are the beaded and decorated silk velvet pattens, from 18th century London. Pattens are a kind of overshoe, designed to protect your shoes from the elements. So someone was double showing off, wearing a beautiful, impractical velvet shoe in the first place, and then covering it with an equally impractical velvet covering for when she went into the street – and since this example was not covered in mud and horse manure, you can bet that this lady never stepped onto any kind of street.


Perhaps she was carried into her carriage by her manservant? Perhaps they lay on the street and she walked across them? Or maybe she never left the house.

Shoes Pleasure and Pain Review – Nothing new Under the Sun

But anyway, going back to platforms. The thing with platforms, the sort of thing that shocked and amused the nation when Naomi Campbell fell over on the catwalk in 1993 whilst wearing very high Vivienne Westwood ones is that yeah, Vivienne Westwood didn’t invent them, 70s designers like Ferragamo didn’t invent them.


Ditto white coloured footwear: white is a hard colour to keep clean and obviously white footwear even more so, so everyone from tacky pop stars like Barry Manilow to Chinese Mandarins to blushing Victorian brides in dainty white silk boots have worn them as a way of showing status. Also Courrèges designed some for his futuristic girls of the 60s, because, I suppose, when we’re all walking on the moon in the future we don’t need to worry because space dust doesn’t stain.

Shoes Pleasure and Pain Review – Feathery Shoes

Gold leafed, feathered and jewelled shoes are a more overt sign of wealth and there are plenty of them dotted around the exhibition too, including a pair of Manolo Blahniks that Sarah Jessica Parker wore as Carrie Bradshaw In Sex and the City. I never thought Carrie had much taste so it’s hard to get excited.


The way that the shoes are presented, in pairs, gave the Shoes Pleasure and Pain exhibition a very “shop window” aspect, and the lack of chronological or geographical arrangement to the show gave it a frustratingly scattered feeling for me. I would have liked to have known how shoe fashions and technology evolved in the 20th Century in Britain (since the V&A is a British based museum), and comparing it to what was happening in other countries at the time and historical influences around the world.


But though the cases were presented in themes like “Fairytale”, “Seduction”, “Status” and “Obsession”, many of the examples airily overlapped, and the whole thing felt more like a window shopping trip for shoe lovers to ooh and ahh over, pointing out to each other which shoes they would and would not wear, than an actual informative exhibition. I’m not saying I didn’t do this myself – there was a lovely pair of Victorian red and gold knee boots so finely worked they made me want to steal them and run away to the circus – but the overall experience was neither beautiful nor useful.

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain – At the V&A Museum, until 31st Jan 2016.