Emma Mitchell knows the pleasure and the pain of shoes, so who better to send to the V&A’s exhibition on footwear?
When I first watched The Wizard of Oz in 1976, aged four, I was left with two thoughts. First, how could weather be so spinny, terrifying and ferocious it could make a house fly around? I became fascinated with tornadoes. Still am. Second, the ruby slippers were the most beautiful shoes I had ever seen. I coveted their deep sequinned sparkliness and magic. Still do.
I had a pair of red canvas flat Mary Janes I was allowed to wear to Brownies. They were the closest I got to the ruby slippers as a child. My eight-year-old self felt elated every time I put them on. I was suffused with the same feeling when, aged 26, I owned a pair of six-inch, peep-toed, hand-stitched sandals from Pied a Terre.
The ludicrous height of these shoes made them almost impossible to walk in, especially on the slope of Hampstead High Street. Their legacy is a chronic ankle injury that flares up whenever I wear heels higher than two inches, yet they were precious.
I couldn’t leg it to catch a train – scampering was out. I walked gingerly and with considerable pain. There was no way I could do a handstand against a wall like I could in my red canvas numbers. I used to look at them in their shiny box and wish they weren’t so bleeding agonising to wear.
The V&A’s exhibition Shoes: Pleasure and Pain examines the reasons why men and women have donned elaborate, expensive, constricting, vertiginous and impractical shoes for millennia. What is it about fancy footwear that is so beguiling?
In folklore, fairy tales and myths, shoes had the power of transformation, to confer speed and magical ability, to condemn and to cast spells on their owners. When Dorothy’s gaff fell on the Wicked Witch of the East’s head, she became the owner of the exquisite sequinned shoes. They gave her queenly status and an ability to nip home to Kansas once she’d sorted out her mates’ pressing need for body parts.
In Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes, Karen is condemned by her beautiful shoes to dance until her death. They can’t be removed; the shoes themselves cast judgement on her because of her vanity.
Moira Shearer’s perfect red shoes from the film adaptation formed part of the exhibit. It was rather startling to see them – it’s a spine-chilling film and her horror-struck face as she was forced to dance incessantly by her beautiful vermillion pointes stuck in my mind as a child.
Many of the shoes in this exhibition reminded me of the high-status food of each equivalent era: gilded marchpane, elaborate filigree cakes and multibird roasts that took hours to prepare.
As with the beautifully arranged sallets of Tudor times and the petits fours eaten at Marie Antoinette’s court, the shoes worn at such occasions were handmade, elaborate and beautiful. Add high heels and a significant effect on gait and these shoes spoke loudly about their owners: I have immense importance and power. Envy me. Copy me. Woo me. Do business with me.
In modern times celebrities have replaced the aristocracy as the wearers of footwear which appears to confer status and sparks trends. In each successive era, the wearers of such shoes placed the beauty of their footwear over practicality and comfort. They were and are prepared to knacker their tootsies and, in the case of the miniscule 19th-century Chinese shoes for bound feet, even mutilate them in order to tell those around them that they were the dog’s plums, that they were powerful and don’t you forget it.
Even Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of love and beauty, wore high shoes, it seems. A statue from the first century BC featured in the exhibition depicts her in heels even more vertiginous than my late 90s numbers. Her shoes seem to be synonymous with her beauty. Heels meant hotness in ancient Greece.
This is echoed in more recent designs from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries owned by high-status Japanese prostitutes and the stars of elaborate burlesque shows. High heels were and still can be used to symbolise, idealise and advertise sexuality and desirability.
This association with sexuality and the effect on movement can make high heels problematic. As much as I prized my six-inch sandals, they constrained me, as did the beautiful silver and gold toe knob padukas of a 19th-century Indian bride.
I expect that woman felt thrilled when she donned her precious metal heels but she wouldn’t have been able to throw enthusiastic shapes to the Gloria Gaynor equivalent of her time.
As a designer-maker, the process of shoe manufacture fascinates me and the complexity of the making process for elaborate footwear is even more exciting. I reached the section given over to the manufacturing process at the end of my visit, yet it was the creative detail in every pair of shoes I gazed at that, no matter their symbolism, made the exhibition transporting for me.
Handmade footwear requires drawings and plans, as do buildings, and is made up of many components, each of which is brought together with a knowledge of physics, geometry and materials science to make a wearable (if not always comfortable) shoe. The sinuous shapes of the hand-cut leather uppers of shoes in various stages of the shoe-making process made me appreciate the skills required to make every last heel, toe and stitch in the exhibition. Each design represents the extraordinary mastery of the designers and makers.
This excellent exhibit showed shoes can be desirable, damaging and even politically significant, yet the achievements of the craftswomen and men who made them are obvious. They have made things that can utterly knacker your feet, trigger thousands of copycat versions and make podiatrists rub their hands in glee, yet their skill is undeniable. It was a thought-provoking and beautiful exhibition.
As for me, I’ve found a shoe that combines comfort with beauty. Earlier in the year I bought a pair of Swedish clogs that confer toe happiness and are a result of excellent craftswoman/manship. They’re made of nubuck, have silver straps and wooden heels and I’ve walked many, many miles in them without a blister. I’ve worn them to a fancy party and even to 10 Downing Street.
When I put them on, I feel the same elation as with my little canvas red shoes of childhood and the giddily high heels of my 20s. Plus, I can sing “A mouse lived in a windmill…” and actually go clip clippity clop on the stair. Shoes still have the same allure for me as they did when I was four, but pain isn’t necessary for a feeling of foot fanciness.
Shoes: Pleasure and Pain runs until 31 January 2016 at the V&A. For more details, visit: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/shoes-pleasure-and-pain/about-the-exhibition2781 Views
I make things, mostly out of silver, sometimes out of wool. I’m never too far from a bottle of PVA glue.