The Shoes: Pleasure and Pain exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum opened on the 30th of June 2015 and runs till the 31st of January 2016. The exhibit is sponsored by Clarks, supported by Agent Provocateur and The Worshipful Company of Cordwainers. Curated by Helen Persson, the spectacular exhibition looks at shoes throughout history and how they have developed, yet remained a status symbol and an expression of one’s identity over time.

As soon as visitors enter the exhibition they are greeted with a visual sensory overload. The first pair of shoes are the very impressive slippers from the new Cinderella movie. These exquisite shoes catch the light and look like a fantasy come to life, a physical representation of the Roger Vivier quote juxtaposed to them on the wall: “To wear dreams on one’s feet is to begin to give a reality to one’s dreams.”


 Photo Credit: AFP / Niklas Halle’n

The exhibition includes modern designers that an audience would be familiar with, like Christian Louboutin, Manolo Blahnik, Jimmy Choo and Vivienne Westwood. One is acutely aware of the status these modern shoe designers possess, and throughout the exhibit one is reminded of how lucky women are that this is what luxury shoes are in this century. To demonstrate the contrast of then and now, the exhibition pairs modern designers shoes with much older ones: the oldest pair dates back to 1550 BC Egypt. There are some amazing historical examples on display, including a pair of 17th century chopines as high as 16 cm. The reason behind the height? To show off! These higher-heeled shoes required a longer dress and thus more fabric, which was a luxury good.  And, such impractical shoes also made it clear that the person wearing didn’t need to work.



As well as a focus on status, the exhibition looks too at seduction: the fetishism of shoes and how they can be incredibly empowering to the wearer. This part of the exhibition showcases shoes as a tool for women to feel strong, for women to be unashamed of their femininity and to take back their sexuality. Women can exude confidence in heels it is here where women can take ownership of themselves.


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A fascinating shoe culture showcased in the exhibit was that of foot binding in China. In the 1800’s the culture of binding feet was popular amongst the upper class. The belief was that smaller feet were a sign of wealth and much like the chopines, one couldn’t do manual labour with bound feet. British photographer Jo Farrell documented the last 19 surviving Chinese women with bound feet in her captivating series published in 2014.

The exhibition provides a great overall context of how shoes have changed, with an insight into each decade, century and year. Not only does it identify trends like binding and chopines, but also the change of styles of the 20th century. On the second floor, after navigating one’s way through a maze of delightful shoes, little footprints lead up a flight of stairs, to the last exhibit, addressing how shoemaking itself has changed thanks to new technologies. One can see old shoe moulds and how the traditional shoe used to be made, and the progression of fabrics and techniques in the trade.

The exhibition has a vast collection of shoes that are good examples of the styles throughout history, however exhibition layout does make it incredibly difficult to navigate properly. The glass cases are not in chronological order, but rather thematic: this made it hard to see the progression of shoes designs. The V&A website’s shoe timeline is more cohesive than the exhibition in this regard and it’s worth having a look at.

What made understanding when the shoes were made, and where from, more difficult was that the text with all the information on it was so small it got incredibly hard to read. This was especially true for the shoes that were in the back row, furthest from the glass. These exhibits would have benefitted from having fewer shoes in each cabinet. The overload of shoes in each case meant that some of the really spectacular shoes were washed out with the rest of them as they were not given enough of a spotlight. Especially the historic shoes deserved more attention. With ample space, the second floor of the exhibition was spacious, airy and lit to make the exhibits more easy to take in. With a second level so bare, the exhibition could have benefitted from a better use of space, as the downstairs section felt very cramped in comparison. Such a stark contrast doesn’t help the flow of the story as the atmosphere of both spaces differed so greatly.


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On a very large wall toward the end of the exhibition is a quote from Cinderella, “One shoe can change your life”, a quote that sums up the exhibition perfectly, capturing the fun spirit of the exhibit. The collection itself cannot be faulted, and a visit to this exhibition is definitely an indulgent treat for all shoe lovers alike.