Shoes: Pleasure and Pain

October 17, 2014

Shoes are on the most evocative aspects of dress. Sculptural and beautiful, shoes are adored by millions. The V&A exhibition, opening on the 13th of June 2015, Shoes: Pleasure and Pain will examine this obsession and discuss how shoes are powerful indicators of gender, status, identity, taste and sexual preference.

Green satin Chopines
Chopines, about 1600, leather and satin damask over cork, Spain, c.1600. Museum no. T.419&A–1913. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The exhibition will include over 250 pairs of alluring and non-functional footwear, both male and female. It will be based on the V&A’s rich collection of Asian and Western footwear, complemented by loans from other institutions worldwide and private collection. Also included are famous shoe wearers and collectors, masterpieces by unknown craftsmen and well-known pieces by celebrated shoe designers.

Gold tasselled shoes
Gold tasselled shoes, leather, silk, cotton, silver and gilded silver, India, 19th century, Museum no. 0515+A(IS) . © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

It will not be the history of shoes, nor encyclopaedia of shoe designers. The displays will be non-chronological and thematic. It will look at how humans have encased their feet in elaborate and highly ornamental footwear usually with little consideration for comfort, functionality or suitability. The dates of the pieces in the exhibition range from ca. 30 BCE to the Spring /Summer 2015, and many of the V&A’s footwear haven’t been on display for over 100 years, if ever.

One gilded leather Egyptian sandal
One sandal, gilded and incised leather and papyrus, Egypt, c.30 BCE—300 CE. Museum no. 7—1888. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The earliest footwear in the exhibition is this sandal, dated to late Pharaonic Egypt / early Roman period. The insole is gilded with near pure gold, but it show signs of actual wear. Can you imagine walking on gold? They would have made a rather emphatic statement about the wearer’s status.

Other exciting examples in the exhibition will be the excessively long-toed Medieval shoes, the extremely high-heeled 1890s fetish boots, jewel-encrusted Indian slippers, a beautiful array of Roger Vivier pull-overs (these are a bit like shoe prototypes), the tiny shoes for the Chinese bound feet, and of course Vivienne Westwood’s blue mock-croc platform shoes in which Naomi Campbell fell over – the original fashion roadkill.

pull-ons, leather uppers on wooden lasts
Roger Vivier for Dior Couture, pull-ons, leather uppers on wooden lasts, France, 1961—3. V&A: Rayne Archive. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The exhibition and its publication has been five years in the making and require team-work, from the logistics of loans to the conservation, and photography, not to mention the very difficult selection of the objects. This shoe-blog will reveal all the pleasures and pains in putting together an exhibition at the V&A.

About the author

October 17, 2014

Since January 2014 I have been based in the Research department, V&A, focussing on the Shoe exhibition and its accompanying publication. I also oversee the collection of Chinese textiles and...

More from Helen Persson
4 comments so far, view or add yours


I’m the grandniece of Alberto Dalco’,the italian shoemaker who made the Radzwill pair of shoes exposed in “The Glamour of Italian Fashion”. In our Dal Co’ Archive we have lots of original pair of shoes from 1958 to nowadays. We would be very pleased to be contacted. We still make custom made shoes and I’m very proud of these 60 years of family businness-Thank you

What a delight to hear from you, and it is wonderful to hear that the family business is still successful. Thank you so much for letting us know.

Helen! You are literally my idol after reading this blog post. So much time and devotion, and someone would say for such a mundane subject as shoes are. But, alas, as I am an art history and fashion history master student, I understand. I hope I will be able to come to London – I am from Serbia so visa requires a lot, but if not, I will manage to get the publication somehow, I hope.

Anyway, there was a beautiful exhibit at the Museum of Applied Arts here, in Belgrade, about the 19th and the 20th century Serbian women’s footwear called Oh, Those Shoes! Our collections are small and funding even smaller, but it was a lovely exhibit. Unfortunately, most of the material on it is on Serbian – but as I gotten my BA in the USA and doing my MA here in Serbia, will gladly provide you with the knowledge on Serbian shoes! :)

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