V&A Shoes Exhibition

As usual you will be reading a warm recommendation to go and see this exhibition if you can.

However the display of over 200 pairs of shoes is arranged by theme, with a strong emphasis on extremes of shape and function. If you are interested in the worship of inanimate objects – fetishism – then there will be much to interest you, and the exhibition is sponsored by Agent Provocateur. Equally if you are interested in the process of design there is a very nice film featuring Manolo Blahnik (he’s a scream) and Louboutin. Upstairs there is an exhibition and film of handmade shoes being made (including on Singer sewing machines) – another of the sponsors is Cordwainers – the guild that have been making shoes for centuries. The process of design from drawings or sketches, to pattern cutting, to selecting materials and then manufacture is interesting for its parallels with dressmaking (in my view).

However I found the exhibition ultimately frustrating. I like to see shoes in context, related to the clothes they support. I like to understand their historic frame of reference, where human society and behaviour is linked to the economy and politics and innovations in fashion, style and design. This exhibition seemed so random with a gold Egyptian slipper jammed next to a 1930s dance shoe, complemented by a feathery concoction form the 1950s. Yes it makes you think, a bit, about what shoes can do for you – in terms of status (white shoes, shoes you can’t walk in, shoes made out of rubber, metal and monkey fur), dreams, pain and pleasure. In the cabinet below there are: ancient Chinese Emperor shoes, embroidered moccasins from Canada, co-respondent shoes as worn by the Duke of Windsor, some Paul Smith white loafers, modern Laboutins, and a dear pair of 1965 Moon boots.

Shoes pleasure and pain
Mixed bunch

My own interest in clothes, including shoes, is essentially part of my interest in the history of fashion. I am most interested in British fashion from the Second World War to say 1990, with a particular interest in the 1960s. Obviously French, Italian, European and American designers are closely allied with British design and normally quite similar. Also I am, because I have been brought up in a very multi-cultural city (London) I find the fashions and colours of Asia and Africa very compelling too. But shoes from the 19th century or earlier, from ancient China, Greece or Egypt has less allure for me. I can’t really relate to them as clothes (that I could conceivably wear).

I was on the look out for shoes by Roger Vivier (yea) – apart from film clips of Catherine Deneuve wearing the Pilgrim shoes, a made to measure pair with a discrete crystal buckle, there were these pink stilettos. And a pair of Courreges Moon Boots which you can see in the top cabinet, above.

There were some super Mary Quant yellow boots, covered in PVC, with daisy imprints on the heels.

The queues were long and it was a bit of a bore to stand behind dozens of folk reading every label. If you are not a member it will cost £12 to get in. You may come away with a greater understanding of why people find shoes so seductive and important. But I felt that the museum had tried to cash in on the “fad” of shoe worship instigated by Sex and City, celebrity culture which encourages young women to wear silly shoes and a continuing fascination with sex, which of course, always sells.

9 Responses

  1. rosemary

    I am hoping to see the exhibit in September, I have seen the Bata shoe collection in Toronto. Like you I like it better when they are displayed with clothing of the same time period.

  2. mrsmole

    Without the clothes of the period, all those different shoes look like orphans. It is amazing that some of them have survived so well and look almost brand new! The Chinese bound shoes are always so shocking…so tiny and restrictive and yet that was the standard for nobility. Thankfully we have moved on a little and evolved into something more practical and comfortable! Thanks for sharing for those of us who don’t live any where near a real city with great exhibits!!!

    • fabrickated

      Orphans! Yes. That is very funny and too true.

      Sometimes when I look at the ridiculous end of high heels I think it is a bit like bound feet.

  3. Lynn Mally

    Another reason to live in London, rather than the suburban sprawl of Southern California! Although I agree with your objections, I would have stood in line a long time to see these shoes.

  4. Sky Turtle

    I agree with you that pieces like this are richer in context. They have wonderful stories to tell, so why not help them?
    There’s an exhibition on the history of female garments and silhouettes in Barcelona at the Museum of textiles and costumes, if you can visit and I feel they do a better job at putting things in context and putting items from related eras toghether. There’s also a Kiosk with more history if you have the time to read it!

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