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Shoes: Pleasure and Pain

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Shoes: Pleasure and Pain - About the Exhibition

13 June 2015 – 31 January 2016

Chopines, about 1600, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Chopines, about 1600, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

We found the "Shoe" exhibition inspiring, stunning and thought-provoking, especially when trying to think about actually walking in some of them. Fabulous, thank you!

This exhibition looks at the extremes of footwear from around the globe, presenting around 200 pairs of shoes ranging from a sandal decorated in pure gold leaf originating from ancient Egypt to the most elaborate designs by contemporary makers. It considers the cultural significance and transformative capacity of shoes and examines the latest developments in footwear technology creating the possibility of ever higher heels and dramatic shapes. Examples from famous shoe wearers and collectors are shown alongside a dazzling range of historic shoes, many of which have not been displayed before.


Embroidered  moccasin

Embroidered  moccasin, 1875–1900, Manitoba, Canada, First Nation: Subarctic Cree, Smoked moose hide and silk embroidery, Given by Miss Maria Fletcher, V&A: 1172-1903

Extraordinary footwear appears in folklore from all over the world. In these stories, our choice of shoes has consequences and can reveal our true selves. The virtuous Cinderella is restored to her rightful position in the world through her slippers, while Karen’s red shoes discipline her for her vanity and ill-advised aspirations. Shoes punish and reward, elevate and entrap, speed and hinder through their powers of transformation.

Fairy-tale shoes for men and boys often give the wearer powers to fly, leap and dash about. Such magical footwear, generally boots, transports the wearer great distances and can even grant a cunning cat the power to move among humans.

Today, the transformative quality of shoes is used to sell them. Modern folklore shows us magic on the football field and fairy-tale shoemakers, whose products will change the life of the wearer. The possession of magical shoes still promises a happy ever after.


Two-teethed geta

Two-teethed geta, About 1920, Japan, Lacquered wood, silk,, rabbit fur, grass and metal, V&A: FE.11:1, 2-2015

Throughout the centuries and across cultures, footwear has symbolised high social status. Often impractical in decoration and shape, these shoes make a clear statement that the wearer does not engage in manual labour. Such shoes also dictate the way the wearer moves, and how they are seen and heard.

The design of shoes has created many identifiable symbols of supremacy and privilege, from the red heels of Louis XIV’s court to the elaborately embroidered moccasins worn by the Iroquois elite. These shoes, just like a pair of Louboutins today, show that the wearer belongs to an exclusive circle.

Removed from their practical purpose, shoes are part of a performance. Their appearance in public can transform the wearer into a king or a queen.



Spiky shoes, 1974, London, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood From the ‘Sex’ collection, Leather and metal, Purchased with the assistance of the Art Fund,the Friends of the V&A, the Elsbeth Evans Trust, and the Dorothy Hughes Bequest, V&A: T.82:1, 2-2002

Shoes play an important part in what different cultures consider to be sexy. Together with feet, they have long been the subject of fetishism.

Sexy shoes affect the movements of the body, titillating the watcher and creating a sensual experience for the wearer. These shoes are often strongly associated with gender. Femininity is typically represented by shoes that make feet look small, either in reality or through illusion. Big, heavy and military-influenced footwear carries masculine connotations. Wearing shoes while naked makes nudity all the more audacious.

Fashion has constantly borrowed from subcultures, including the fetish realm, to push boundaries and to create the new. Shoe fashions around the world reflect changes in sexual attitudes. Shoes equal sex.


Bespoke brogued Oxfords

Brogued Oxfords, 1989, London, New & Lingwood Ltd, Leather, Given by New & Lingwood Ltd, V&A: T.216&A-1989

Making shoes is a process of design, sculpture and engineering. Makers fuse function and art through traditional craftsmanship and technological innovation. Creating footwear still includes essential processes established hundreds of years ago, but in our time globalisation has led to great changes in the production, commerce and consumption of shoes, from the handmade to the mass-produced.

To satisfy the changing tastes of fashionable clients, designers use skill and ingenuity to create innovative styles and to deal with the structural challenges of extreme footwear. One of the ongoing trials for shoemakers has been the demand for increasingly high heels.

The creative imagination is the starting point of design even if a profitable product is the end goal. The practical processes of design include sketching, last and heel selection, choosing.


Red shoes

Red shoes, 1958, England, Freeman Hardy Willis, Leather and beads, V&A: T.316&A-1970

Shoes are commodities and collectibles. The luxurious and impractical shoes that clearly signal privilege and status have long been objects of desire. Today, a pair of shoes by Jimmy Choo or Prada is a more coveted possession than any other item of clothing. Spending large amounts of money on a pair of shoes is pleasurable because it is excessive. From the designer shoe lover to the trainer enthusiast, footwear obsessives do not acquire shoes for their value as assets or investments. Shoes are collected for the pleasure of possessing, because of the beauty of shoes and sometimes for the memories and associations that go with them.

Sponsored by Clarks

British shoe retailer and manufacturer Clarks are delighted to be partnering with the V&A as part of the brand’s 190 year celebrations. Find out more about the brand’s history here. The partnership includes exclusive product collaborations and lead sponsorship of the Shoes: Pleasure and Pain exhibition.

Supported by
Agent Provocateur

With additional thanks to

The Worshipful Company of Cordwainers




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