Next week our Apparel Designers meetup group will be going to see the "Pleasure and Pain" shoe exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum. I had intended to write about the show after I had seen it, but we are going on the last day it's open(Sunday, March 12th), and I thought how cruel it would be to tell you all about this spectacular exhibit that you could no longer see. So instead, in hopes that you will be inspired to go see it for yourself....
let's talk about SHOES!
men's marbleized shoes. image via the Peabody Essex Museum
A brief history of shoes...
Ever since the first human who began walking upright got a pebble embedded in his toe, people have tried to protect the soles of their feet. The earliest shoes were plant material or animal hides simply bound to their feet. Cave drawings more than 15,000 years old depict early humans with some kind of footwear. One of the oldest intact examples we have found yet was discovered in the caves of Oregon. It is estimated to be over 7,500 years old and is made of sagebrush bark. The oldest leather shoe known was found in an Armenian cave. This shoe is estimated to be 5,500 years old, and was remarkably preserved in sheep dung.
Throughout history, however, shoes have not only fulfilled a practical role; for as long as there has been a history of man and his customs, shoes have also been used to convey status, wealth, and to make other statements as well. Early shoes from Egyptian royalty were inlaid with gold, shoes from the courts of Europe were festooned with ribbons and luxurious materials, slippers and sandals from India and the Middle East were embellished with precious jewels and embroidery. One of the more impractical shoe styles (at least to modern eyes), the poulaine of medieval Europe, was a popular style for the upper class for a nearly 400 years. That is a very long run as far as fashion trends are concerned! The poulaine was made of leather and had a very long and pointed toe, which eventually reached such extreme lengths that it practically doubled the natural length of its wearers' feet and altered their gait.
There have been some pretty extreme cases of shoe-hounds, too: Marie Antoinette was apparently obsessed with her extravagant shoe collection and Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines, notoriously had more than one thousand pairs of shoes.
It's not only women that are obsessed with women's shoes, though, men seem to be as well. The fetishizing of the foot is not something insignificant in the evolution of shoe styles throughout the ages; shoes and sexual allure have been closely tied for a very long time. One does not have to look much further than the Geta shoes of Japan, which cause its wearers to be pitched slightly forward and necessitate a dainty albeit precarious shuffling step. Another example is the restricting Lotus foot shoes of China, which all but debilitated its wearers. Practitioners of this tradition had to bind girls' feet staring at a very young age to make sure they would conform to the diminutive size and shape of the lotus slipper. These practices may seem very strange to western tastes, but even here in the USA, many women have gone to extremes to wear the most current shoe styles. Some women even have amputated their baby toe in order to fit their feet into stilettos. Talk about suffering for style!
A less gory, but equally fascinating story, is of an established British shoe company which turned to creating fetish shoes and boots to get through an economic downturn. The story of the W.J. Brooks company was made into a movie and later into a stage musical ,both named "Kinky Boots". Some of the extreme heights or construction of modern shoes are no less bizarre or perilous than some of the most exotic traditional footwear. There have been a few instances of fashion models losing their balance and taking a spill, such as the legendary Naomi Campbell on the runway for Vivian Westwood back in the day. And who can forget the iconic platforms of Ferragamo or John Fluevog? Anyone wearing these was risking an embarrassing fall in order to look stylish.
Although we may not think this at all compares, millions of women every day squeeze their feet into shoes that may be gorgeous but not exactly comfortable. There are scores of podiatrists that will tell them that they are not doing their feet any favors wearing these shoes, but nonetheless the waiting lists for the hottest styles can be months long at top stores. Although it is debatable whether they are playing into a male constraint or perception of beauty, I can attest that many of these women feel empowered by the added height and confidence that a great pair of heels can deliver. At some point most modern women have scrimped and saved, sacrificed and schemed to get a coveted pair, proving their allure has not lessened since shoes first mutated from pure functionality to a symbol of something more ephemeral.
click on each image for more details
Still not convinced you need to see this show?
Even if you are one of the few people impervious to the charm of a beautifully crafted shoe, it will be fascinating to see such a vast collection all in one place. To view them as a study of human nature and human history is also a worthwhile reason to make it a point to see the exhibit before it closes on March 12th. If you want to join our group to view the show on its closing day, feel free to sign up on our Meetup page.
Have you already gone to see this exhibit? If so, give us the inside scoop - we would love to hear what the highlights of the collection were for you. Feel free to leave your thoughts in comments below.