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Shoes: Pleasure & Pain at the V&A


shoes v a 5If having the McQueen exhibition wasn’t enough for one museum, they’ve only gone and staged probably the best shoe exhibition in the world. Oh, really? Yes. Check it. Over 2,000 years, 250 pairs of shoes, 20 countries and 70 designers, and a feeding frenzy of press the like I haven’t seen in a while.

What is it about shoes that draw this level of interest and excitement?

There’s an assured hand dealing with the psychology behind the enduring fascination the shoe provides the human psyche, evident in a curation, with the shoes displayed thematically, not chronologically. In the central part of the museum, the entry level area is very intimately lit, darker hues of bordello purple to “convey more about the feeling of shoes,” as Helen, the curator revealed. Many of the shoes she explained had never been on display before, some high profile loans from key individuals, and institutions around the world, including the Beckham estate, a pedigree purveyor of upstanding football boots. Not to mention Lady GaGa’s ‘Angel Wing’ booties, designed in 2010 by Alexander McQueen, looking like they had been designed straight out of a lump of pure gold.

The sections are imaginatively titled and the minimalist descriptions convey just the right amount of style, elegance, raunch, debauchery, class, privilege, self-expression, fashion and fetish to keep even the most dedicated sandal and socks wearer excited.

Transformation engages in what is embedded in our psyche in all cultures, revealing our true selves, the consequences of what we bring forth, as we allow the shoe to transform our characters and our very being. We only need to think of Cinderella, and the glass shoe on display; the ballerina’s Red Shoes, from the Preminger movie, on display and on a delightful film clip on permanent loop, next to John Travolta’s enigmatic strut-walk opening sequence to Saturday Night Fever, oozing 80s disco schmaltz. How many times have we wished for some magic slippers to carry us away, or mimicked Dorothy’s clicked heels with the same escapist intentions?

shoes v a 1All Eyes On Me begins to get to the nitty-gritty of the opulence of the wearer, knowingly on display to attract attention, to the feet and the wearer “jewels for the feet” the panel says “for people who don’t walk anywhere, but are chauffeured around.” Status is largely about the statement that in these little darlings, I most certainly do not engage in manual labour, and exemplified by Louis IVs Court shoes, or those styled for the Iroquois elite. What these shoes say is that you belong to an exclusive circle, or that you can indulge in a transformation as part of a self-styled performance.

Seduction If you aren’t clear on just what this means, there were some subtle clues: ‘the naughty nineties’; ‘shoes to entice’; ‘stripper heels’; ‘Scarlett women’ ‘ sexy soles’. And so on. What was and still is the magnetic draw that these sculptured two-somes have for us, is that not only are they an aphrodisiac, they also happen, shoes and feet, to be the subject of fetishism. Well, I never. And for the hard of hearing, it’s pretty much spelt out: “shoes equal sex.” Shoes affect the movement of the body. This aspect in particular defines gender, femininity. And, lest we forget “wearing shoes while naked makes movement all the more audacious.” And careful where you sit I should have thought also.

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On different panels either side of the glass cased shoes, statements from the world’s elite designers, capture the essence of what each shoe if it could only speak, would crawl up your leg and tell you. “To wear dreams on one’s feet is to begin to give reality to one’s dreams,” from the great Roger Vivier.

shoes 4 v aThe Way You Move: this section covered the notion of rank and status delivered through deportment and posture – themselves directly affected by the footwear. We think of the dandies, or the officers posing by huge fireplaces, all seeming to adopt a posture of importance, with elaborately disguised manufactured ease. All that in a look. So of course with shoes, you can ‘mince, shuffle, stride or strut.’ Or you can go from ‘skipping girl to seductress, to a businessman or pimp’ – all entirely determined by what you wear on your plates of meat and the way you move.

And so we have Follow Me. In this case, I immediately zeroed in on ‘shoes for a cad’ the two-tone sports shoes, (1925-35, Made in England by John Mcaffee) made popular by the Duke of Windsor who demonstrated (ok, he wore them) that they could work equally well with formal attire or the sporty look. They had a nickname, and were derogatorily known as co-respondents, associating them with decadent, wealthy men. Not old Dukey, surely? Perched, slightly higher and imperiously central are the shoes on loan from another Lady. GaGa, not from the Windsor lineage.  Without knowing one’s shoe history, there are little gems of discovery that will educate at the same time as enchant. Andre Perugia ‘considered the greatest shoe designer of the 20th century.’ And alongside, is some ‘Exceptionally Modern Perugia’ – gold leather wedges too prove it, sold by SAKS 5th Ave, made in 1940.

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We crank it up a little with ‘Soles of Desire’, by the great Christian Louboutin, a God amongst the shoe design world, with his Pigalle Pumps made in 2004 in Paris, in leather on display. (He adores working in leather apparently). What is utterly fascinating and engaging for the viewer is to see next to the Louboutin’s, a 1673 Louis IV pair of shoes, where Louis was bang on trend with his red heels. Well, actually, he started it.

shoes v a rayne heelsWe are reminded of innovation with fabrics, materials, and construction – as Nick Rayne (Rayne heels pictured right), had already educated me with many of their great shoes on display, all around. My eyes were drawn to the canary yellow PVC Mary Quant ‘Ankle Boots’ designed in 1967, epitomizing the revolution in fashion with her clothing and footwear, in pop art, colours and plastics.  Nearby and from a similar period, 1967 and another great name from the past, Pierre Cardin’s patent leather men’s ankle boot, with space-age happening style, championing the return of the boot.

High Society reveals the wisdom behind the nomenclature. ‘Height’ is the most conspicuous way to represent status, as you are literally higher than, and staring down at your lowly less fortunate. How many small men and all their Napoleon-tantrums have benefitted from the uplifting footwear? (They all seem to migrate to the world of acting for some reason, these tiny-tot Thespis.)

shoes v a shoes for CadI liked the titles within sections, to discern ‘A Sartorial Choice’ (which could mean anything in the wrong hands or feet), actually refers to ‘heels for men, once stylish, now desirable are now perhaps the last taboo in fashion.’ Well, I think that may just be overstating it a bit. Even if they do quote Russell Brand (no, not a shoe shop, or a brand), and Lenny Kravitz, who’s “I belong to you, and you belong to me” lyrics were said to be dedicated to his favorite high-heeled Cubans.

And then we almost stumbled on the phrase “well-heeled.” Which could be ‘up to as much as 8cm in height for a man, and symbolized power and privilege and expressed an overt masculinity.’ And not an observation from someone in Shoreditch admiring just how pukka the heels actually were, as “well nice.” I innocently thought it meant you are standing from a privileged vantage point in the wealth stakes. And turn again Whittington, and all the fashion-police, faux pas of one’s youth are staring you back in your face, my those wedges, those platforms, those colours, that faux crocodile luminescent platform look I was going for back then…

So I sauntered upstairs, then went two at a time in my don’t polish them scuffed boot charmers. To the land of the artisan. My fav by far. I love the respect the craftsman and woman (for there are some great shots of a woman making shoes by hand) receives and the demystifying process of the intricate skillsets that come into play: 200 separate stages from design to finishing for some handmade shoes. It really is a craft. The ‘last’ that is created as a mold of the foot, used as the base for the paper pattern in bespoke shoes – all nicely explained. Also the fact that uppers (he’s on his uppers, remember?) include toes, top, sides of the foot and the back of the heel – not just the tongue.

shoes v a fashion interviewsWe are reminded that owing to the invention of the steel spike in the 1950s, we now have eye-piercingly serious length heeled shoes. Rayne shoes, the heels in particular get their own deserved section. (A London bus was successfully perched on 4 Rayne shoes for a publicity stunt, according to TFL. Well maybe not tfl.). A ‘pullover’ isn’t a dodgy sweater. It’s the prototype for the shoe that is ‘pulled’ into and over the lasts. And with a glimpse at the future, a simple statement suggests, how ‘3D printing has enabled greater experimentation together with flat packed footwear…signposting the way for the future of shoes and the technology shaping them.  Maybe.

There is a place found for the serious fetishists, described as ‘collectors’. And some impressive collections with Robert and his Adidas thing going on; Katie, Valerie and of course Imelda Marcos, who sort of started the whole thing.

We end the event with another tagline, never dated or worn. “One Shoe Can Change Your Life.” Cinderella. She’s been dining on that one for some time now.

A fantastic collection that had some wonderful film footage of interviews with some of our current heavyweights in the shoe design world, telling you about their inspiration. Manolo Blahnik is hilarious in his refusal to play the game. “Computers? Are you out of your mind?!” Supported by, “Mood board? Are you crazy? For me, it’s absolutely a waste of time.” Got to love him. And I would say, you’ve got to love this exhibition. Amble along, strut, Converse your way there. Just get there.

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain is on now until 31st January 2016.


Review by Paul Markevicius

Related articles:

Now On: Rayne Shoes For Stars

The History of the Heel

Editor’s Choice: Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty

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