How do you decide what shoes to include in the exhibition? There are over 2300 pairs (and some singles) in the V&A Collection; that includes footwear – shoes, sandals and boots – from the Asian department and Furniture, Textiles and Fashion department. A lot of shoes indeed. So to make a selection, the focus has to be on the story of the shoes – what are they saying?
The gold encrusted sling-backs seen above are definitely not for manual labour. All that excessive braiding and sequinning would limit the wearer’s movement to only short walks, indicating that the wearer don’t have to walk to places but have the means to be driven everywhere. The wearer probably also had to think of the gait, so not to rub the shoes against each other causing beads to fall off. The opulent decoration on the shoes would also attract attention, making the wearer stand out. Furthermore, the label on the insole informs that the designer was Roger Vivier – the Fabergé of shoes – for Christian Dior. Dior employed Vivier to designs shoes to go with his romantic gowns, and these evening shoes represents the ultimate in luxury footwear. Although the designer label is on the insole of the shoes, and cannot be seen when worn, the wearer would be able to take pleasure in knowing that they wore the most desirable shoes available and satisfaction from the fact that an exclusive circle of fashionistas would, of course, also know the shoes’ origin and share in the sense of a secret privilege. Only the most wealthy members of society could afford Dior gowns and accessories. The donor and wearer of these shoes, Mrs. Loel Guinness, belonged to one of Europe’s richest families.
These tall black satin boots once belonged to a Chinese Mandarin of the ninth rank. Only officials of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) government and men with some position in society were allowed to wear this type of boots – everyone else wore shoes. Instantly recognisable, the boot-wearer signalled wealth and superiority. These boots were also expensive, and could cost as much as one year of a servant’s wage and they were not for walking: the circa 7 cm-thick white soles were rather inflexible, with the implication of wearing such boots was that the Mandarin never travelled anywhere on foot.
Globally and through the ages, shoes have been used as a signifier of money, power and prestige through their elevated construction, their elaborate decoration, their brand and the way the shoes make the wearer move – this is the story. After physically looking at all the 2000+ shoes in the V&A collection, about 250 pairs have been selected that in one way or another visualising the story. It was difficult.