#exhibition | Shoes: Pleasure and Pain

I am very proud to present the first article by a contributing writer today. MuseumLifestyle is an international project and therefore about the art world and museums all over the world. As Wera and I have both fulltime jobs we can’t travel as much as we would love to of course. Well, you all know that problem, right?! So we’re both very happy that our friend Ann-Katrin, a curator and art historian from Münster who lives part time in London explored an awesome exhibition for us. Read her experience at the actual shoe exhibition at V&A in London below.

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The Victoria and Albert Museum is without question one of my favourite museums in London. Its marvellous collections are like a treasure chest, you always find something new in there, and have been an inspiration for numerous artists and designers over the last 160 years. But today I wasn’t there to wander through the galleries, but to see one particular temporary exhibition: “Shoes: Pleasure and Pain”. The exhibition explores the transformative power of extreme footwear and shows more than 250 pairs of historic and contemporary shoes from around the world, ranging from a sandal decorated in pure gold leaf originating from ancient Egypt to futuristic looking shoes created using 3D printing.

I couldn’t think of a better title for this exhibition than “Pleasure and Pain”. Of course we get excited when we buy a new pair of high heels, but let’s be honest, we also feel relieved when we can finally take them off after a long night out. It is also perfectly captured in the stunning photo by Helmut Newton of Nadia Auermann, which got chosen as the poster motif for the exhibition.

High & Mighty shoot, American Vogue , February 1995, (model: Nadja Auermann) Dolce & Gabbana suit, Summer 1995 © Estate of Helmut Newton / Maconochie Photography
High & Mighty shoot, American Vogue , February 1995, (model: Nadja Auermann) Dolce & Gabbana suit, Summer 1995 © Estate of Helmut Newton / Maconochie Photography

“Shoes: Pleasure and Pain” is shown over two floors in a rotunda within the fashion department of the V&A. (By the way, the V&A’s Fashion collection is the largest and most comprehensive collection of dresses in the world and worth a visit at any time!) In a plush, boudoir-like ambiance with deep, violet carpets and crystal chandeliers, the ground floor gallery doesn’t present the exhibited shoes in a chronological order, as I’d expected, but examines three central themes: transformation, status and seduction.

The transformation segment opens with shoes from myths and legends. I’d never thought about before how many fairytales contain shoes as a key element of the story, from Cinderella’s glass slipper and the Seven League Boots from the”Hop o’My Thumb” tale to more recent examples such as Dorothy’s red shoes from the Wizard of Oz and the red ballet shoes from the film ‘The Red Shoes”. It is the idea of the slipper that is important: shoes help us to achieve our dreams. Modern-day shoemakers have indeed adapted this concept and want us to believe that their designs will magically transform our lives. (Think of Carrie Bradshaw and her love for her Manolo Blahniks!)

Have you ever bought shoes you could not really walk in, just because you thought they were so pretty? (I may have…) The ‘Status’ section of the exhibition reveals that impractical shoes actually have been worn for centuries to represent privileged and leisurely lifestyles and how our posture and movement is affected and altered by the footwear we wear. When do you think the red high heel was invented? Maybe in the late 19th century? It was actually at the court of King Louis XIV of France, where square shaped but still very high heels – sometimes reaching 8cm in height – became highly fashionable for men. Yes, men! The heel symbolised power and privilege and expressed in fact an overt masculinity. (Who would have thought that, certainly not me!)

Speaking of red high heels, shoes can also represent an expression of sexual empowerment. And like feet, shoes can be objects of fetishism. Nowhere was this idea being taken further than in Imperial China. The female beauty ideal of the time were so called “Lotus feet”, very small, tapered feet, for which the feet of young girls got painfully tight bound to prevent further growth. It became popular, again, as a means of displaying status for women from wealthy families, since they did not need their feet to work and could afford to have them bound. Looking at the examples of shoes for lotus feet in the exhibition actually made me cringe. The ideal length, called the “Golden Lotus”, was only 7.6cm long! I wear a European size 40, that means my feet are 26cm long, and I can’t even imagine the pain and suffering these women must have gone through to reach this beauty ideal.

The exhibition continues on the second floor in a much cooler atmosphere. This part focuses on the way shoes are being made and the people who make them. Shoes are indeed extremely complex products. Handmade shoes require up to 200 steps in creating and contain of dozens of different parts. But of course today only a minimal percentage of all shoes are handmade. The vast majority are made by machines and are a product of our globalized economy: In 1986 China produced only 8% of shoes, today six out of ten pairs in the world are made there. But the development in shoe production probably won’t stop there. On display is also footwear that pushes the boundaries of possinility, including the form-pressed ‘Nova’ shoes designed by Zaha Hadid with an unsupported 16cm heel and Andreia Chaves’ ‘Invisible Naked’ shoes that fuse a study of optical illusion with 3D printing and high quality leather making techniques.

Finally, a film (projected against a wall of shoe boxes from the V&A’s depot, a scenographic detail I liked a lot) features interviews with five shoe designers and makers: Sandra Choi (Creative Director at Jimmy Choo), Caroline Groves, Marc Hare, Christian Louboutin, and the one and only Manolo Blahnik (“Mood boards?! I don’t have a mood board; I think they are a waste of time! I do what I want to do!”)

Ann-Katrin at V&A Museum, London
Ann-Katrin at V&A Museum, London

You might be wondering by now which shoes I chose to wear for this occasion. I’d love to show you a photo of a pair of stunning Louboutins now, but the truth is, I rarely wear high heels during the day – and can only dream of owning a pair of Louboutins!. Instead I wore my trusty flats from & other stories. But I still had to take a picture of them while standing on the sumptuous mosaic floors of the V&A.

Altogether I spent much more time in the exhibition then I’d expected and can only recommend it to you (that is, of course, if you’re a shoe lover like me, my boyfriend kindly declined to come along with me 😉 ). But be warned, you may feel an urgent need to buy a new pair of shoes afterwards! 😉

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Text by Ann-Katrin Hahn

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Ann-Katrin is an art historian and assistant curator at the Kunstmuseum Pablo Picasso Münster. A few years ago she fell in love with London and one Londoner in particular and now divides her time between Germany and the UK. She agrees with Neiman Marcus that women who wear black lead colourful lives.

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