Shoes: Pleasure and Pain
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Until 31 January 2016
The German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe apparently once wrote beseechingly to his wife, Christiane Vulpius, requesting a pair of her shoes – “So that I might have something”, he entreated, “to press against my heart”. Fortunately for Goethe, stiletto heels were not invented until the late 19th century.
Had Vulpius pandered to such supplications, the poet might have received something like the satin slippers, striped blue and cream, which feature in this newest exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Shoes: Pleasure and Pain. With their stout block heels and cheery rosettes stitched at the toe, they are friendly enough for an angsty German poet to nestle against. They are also a fairly innocent exhibit, quaintly redolent of ice cream and hair ribbons, in a show crowded with more than 200 items that vary wildly: sharp and flirtatious, structured and supple, aggressive and engineered, primitive and futuristic. The exhibition claims to explore both the agony and the obsession of shoes. This seems no bad idea. As Goethe’s impulse indicates, there is something strange, sexy and compelling about shoes. But although it is a bright and lively affair, it’s not clear whether this is an exhibition capable of working out what that something is.
Delving into the museum’s archive, curator Helen Perrson has put together a glittering display, setting up an obviously blockbuster summer show. Insert here puns about footfall and numbers of feet through the door, if you like; it’s certainly hard to imagine audiences taking to the show with less enthusiasm than the sharp-elbowed crowds that gathered for the previews. And yet, although Shoes: Pleasure and Pain offers a fun collection, it is also depressingly indicative of just how commercialised the business of culture has become. It would be naive to expect a show about shoes not to be sponsored, and Clarks is a decent enough bed-fellow – not irrelevant, not that intrusive and not without its own interesting history. The problem here is not so much partnerships as the business of curation itself: the ways in which the presentation of material history as “stuff” now seems to dispense so glibly with precisely the social, cultural and historical contexts that make it meaningful.
There is certainly range here, though, and a global representation of footwear. Many of the pieces are jaw-droppingly beautiful, astonishingly crafted, constructed and embellished. The 19th-century Indian “paduka” wedding sandals gleam with the kind of luxury that endures for centuries. Silver, composited with gold and gilded copper, the shoes form a platform, elevating the bride above her guests. A row of exquisite bells jangle beneath the rigid sole, and a silver nodule provides the only means of attachment to the foot. Platforms feature nonchalantly in men’s footwear too. The Qing dynasty “power boots” are lush, outlandishly proportioned, faintly ludicrous: huge platform boots reaching to the knees like wellies, but in a luxurious black silk with an impudent green trim.
The show is arranged thematically (titled, vacuously, “transformation”, “status”, “seduction”, etc), but loosened from their contexts, the artefacts gathered seem unanchored, abandoned without the aid of intelligent notes. A touch-screen timeline on a console near the entrance helps. But its chronology – beginning with rudimentary woven clogs, reaching to curled oriental toes in 1786, patrician wellington boots in 1817, distinct left and right shoes in c.1830, rudely functional Doc Martens in 1946, flip-flops in 1962, etc – feels like a perfunctory exercise. Perhaps the point is that the items should speak for themselves. Certainly, the point of material history is to understand people and culture through the objects of their making, as though the things themselves were capable of testimony.
The problem here is that the artefacts are chaotically clustered together, and that the vision of each vertiginous new spike heel or gorgeous wedge seems to deliberately discourage any more thoughtful engagement. This is a show that seems itself to have been seduced by the spectacle of commerce, the impulse that makes us buy more and forget how things are made. To be fair, there are some gestures towards addressing this: projected into the apse of the gallery’s domed ceiling is a film that follows a young, aproned, Asian woman at work: her deft, stained fingers lever in nails, manipulate shanks, handle specialist blades, sloughing off the excess of a heel. The film unfurls quietly in the gods, easily missed, stupidly marginalised in a show that seems too often to underestimate the interests of an audience that is surely capable of comprehending the complex stories beneath the shiny surfaces.
Upstairs, the show asks how shoes are made, then rather lamely exhibits strips of uncut leather, jars of eyelets and jumbled lasts. The parts of a shoe are disassembled, splayed in a display case like a corpse in a crime scene. But shoe fitting is also refigured as a problem of engineering – how to get the perfect heel, how to allow mobility without loss of balance, the mechanics of beauty and the beauty of mechanics entwined.
All this is fascinating, hastily covered and disappointingly dispensed with almost as soon as it begins. But it can be seen, for example, in Rupert Sanderson’s “Estelle” shoes, where dark wine-coloured laser-cut leather and a steel stiletto betray the paradox of a foot encased in a shoe that is hollowed out, exposing the very movement of musculature it would ordinarily conceal and circumscribe. Zaha Hadid’s futuristic boot also makes explicit that architecture – a cantilevered metallic-rubber structure, invisibly supported on a 16cm heel, rotation moulded so as to be seamless. Next to it, the Nike football boots for the 2014 World Cup glow in their luminous “flyknit technology”, a one-piece upper with a cutely integrated sock, lighter than air so that the foot wearing it becomes the ball it reaches for, almost without barrier, responsive to every touch.
Men’s footwear is rather shamelessly relegated in this show. A smart pair of tan brogues languishes in the back of a display cabinet. The small label details, barely, how it was made, astonishingly, from Russian calf leather retrieved from a 1786 Danish shipwreck in Plymouth Sound. Another brilliant display celebrates the collector, Lionel Ernest Bussey, who by his death in 1969 had gathered around 600 pairs of women’s shoes, all unworn, still boxed up with original receipts. Among them is a pair of knee-high boots, startling in scarlet leather, dating from 1920-23, tightly laced, pert and pointed, powerfully sexed. The show, infuriatingly coy, never thinks to enquire further as to why collectors collect, to problematise the particular kind of fantasy figured by a foot and the contortions it is forced to take.
Towards the close of the show, a glittering display muses meaninglessly over the “magic” of Cinderella slippers and balletic “Red Shoes”. The real magic of shoes is, though, found in the stories of how they are made and what we aspire to do in them. The show seems to miss the powerful irony of shoes called “Parakeet” (Caroline Groves’ sensational 2014 bird-wing heels, blue French silk pleats with billowing plumes, and a gold claw perched like a goddess on the end of a Rolls-Royce) or “Tail Light” (Miuccia Prada’s 2012 mischievously contoured chassis, with flashing lights and exhaust flames): shoes in which you can only stumble, not fly; totter, never zoom. The truth is that we strap on our shoes and hope to move like a bird or a car, anything to escape the hobbled reality of having only two feet and a whole world to traverse.
Shahidha Bari is lecturer in Romanticism at Queen Mary University of London. She is currently working on a book about the philosophy of clothes.