Inside the V&A's latest exhibit.

“So yes, I do have a thing for shoes,” concluded the V&A’s Helen Persson in her address to the media earlier this week.  

Traditionally a curator in the museum’s Asian department, Persson’s latest feat is the much anticipated ‘Shoes: Pleasure and Pain’, an exhibition that according to its makers, ‘explores the agonising aspect of wearing shoes as well as the euphoria and obsession they inspire’; notably there are no Birkenstocks or Dr. Scholl’s in sight. 

With such a title it’s easy to visualise comparisons with last year’s ‘Women Fashion Power’ exhibition at the Design Museum (here), and sure, there are a wealth of attention demanding pieces and notes on social commentary displayed across the two floors.  

But power isn’t quite the backbone of Persson’s exhibit, neither does it exclude menswear; though ladies shoes are indeed given a more extensive platform, Beckham’s ‘Brooklyn’ football boots share a cabinet with Freed of London’s feted red ballet slippers.

“Shoes are one of the most telling aspects of dress,” the curator reasons in the accompanying show notes. “Beautiful, sculptural objects, they are also powerful indicators of gender, status, identity, taste and even sexual preference. Our choice in shoes can help project an image of who we want to be.”

Occupying the same space formally adopted by ‘Wedding Dresses: 1775-2014’, the ground floor implicitly depicts one of the three major supporters: Agent Provocateur. Not exclaimed outright – and to other eyes perhaps more show time than sexy time vibes – the floor is a feast of dark spaces, chandeliers and purple velvet; presumably the bright and breezy mood upstairs is Clarks’ doing. 

Split into three departments exploring transformation, status and seduction, the ground floor visits numerous centuries, cities and aesthetics (the whole shebang showcases over 250 pairs of shoes from 70 designers spanning 2000 years); last season Sophia Webster is as likely to grab your attention as French numbers from the 18th century.

Elsewhere semi-recent throwbacks like Olivia Morris’s tattoo boots circa 1999 and Patrick Cox’s classic Wannabes from the mid-90’s offer light relief amidst the heavy heights of Vivienne Westwood’s iconic 1993 Naomi Campbell tumble inducing platforms and a pair of Chinese shoes produced in 1900 for bound feet; the sheer presence of the latter is enough to provoke a horrified wince. 

Confused ethics of past practice aside, the exhibit proves, perhaps not on purpose, that not all shoes are created equal: there is a lot of ugly to see, and not in the fashion editor ugly that you might associate with Prada’s 2012 golf shoes (one of the contemporary highlights, actually), but as in aesthetically not pleasant. This presumably is a matter of taste, but as much as taste varies so to does the selection on show.

Upstairs obsessions are poured over; here we ‘meet’ Katie, whose collection is a product of the high street (shoutouts to Topshop, New Look and Faith), a male sneakerhead and a lady whose latest purchase is a pair of Rick Owens boots: “They take a basic shape to another level – like no other pair.”

There’s also a tour of how shoes are made, the production of a pair of brogues projected across four walls and a line up of the technology approved (think Stella McCartney’s vegan knee highs, Nike’s ‘Magistrate Obra’ and an example of 3D printing).

Much of the drama, or pressure, associated with footwear occurs from the way it can change the human form, be it attempts to physically remould the foot or the adapted wiggle of a person’s behind, heel height depending; likewise the physical emotion be it a smile or deep sigh that presents itself at the checkout. Several of these stages are exposed in the 13 TV and film clips on rotation on the ground floor, Sex and The City, Sofia Copploa’s ‘Marie Antoinette’ and ‘Juice’ amongst them.  

As curator Helen Persson reminded associated press ahead of her thing for shoes big reveal, all those present are displayed in pairs, meaning however high the heel, awkward the fastening or downright outrageous the pain, each pair was intended to be worn. A simple observation, you scream, but an easy association to ignore when placing such pleasure on a pedestal.

Words: Zoe Whitfield

'Shoes: Pleasure And Pain' opens tomorrow until 31st January 2016.

www.vam.ac.uk

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