Shoes: Pleasure and Pain at the V&A


Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, the V&A’s latest fashion exhibition, took five years in the making, and it’s easy to see why; curator Helen Persson doesn’t just offer a superficial insight into more recent times and memorable shoe styles like the achingly high ‘Stiletto’, first invented in the 1950s and named after a thin Italian dagger, or the 1970s ‘Platform’, which caused countless sprained ankles, this display, featuring over 250 pairs of shoes, explores the humble beginnings of our inherent obsession with footwear across far flung cultures, and spanning thousands of years.


It’s incredible to see how footwear has evolved through an extraordinary range of exhibits including an early pair of shoes decorated in gold leaf which were found in Egypt about 30BC, 19th-century Chinese silk shoes of just 7.6cm in length which were intended for bound feet, alongside a pair of boots dating from the 1960s designed by Mary Quant, and the Duchess of Cambridge’s favourite nude courts by L.K Bennett. Vivienne Westwood, who once claimed that, “Shoes must have very high heels and platforms to put women’s beauty on a pedestal”, lends her name to a key exhibit; the metallic blue leather “Super Elevated Gillie” which, with 9 inch heels and 4 inch platforms, caused Naomi Campbell to take a tumble on the catwalk in 1993.


Rarely were the styles on display reflective of the shape of feet or intended to be comfortable. Many designs, such as the iconic Ballerina Ultima fetish shoes by Christian Louboutin, which look like some form of torture device, require the wearer to contort their feet into the most preposterous shapes, and making it agonising to walk five yards. An estimated 15 million of us suffer from bunions, a common side-effect of adopting killer heels on a regular basis and in 2009 Victoria Beckham famously admitted to requiring surgery for this unsightly and painful condition thanks to years of 6 inch heel-wearing, declaring ‘I hate my feet – they are the most disgusting thing about me’. This exhibition certainly succeeds in making us question the psychology behind our shoe choice and why certain styles make us feel different, whether it’s sexier, confident, or more powerful.


“Give a girl the right shoes and she can conquer the world,” said Marilyn Monroe, and there is hardly a woman alive who hasn’t suffered from wearing inappropriate heels in order to make herself look more alluring on a night out, at least once in her life. On the other hand, some of us consider heels an extension of ourselves and are prepared to endure foot pain on a daily basis. Monroe once paid tribute to the creator of high heels, “I don’t know who invented high heels, but all women owe him a lot.” The exhibition happens to boast a well-worn pair of white Salvatore Ferragamo pumps from her personal collection and, interestingly, whilst she is believed to have always worn one heel shorter than the other in order to create her famous wiggle-walk, this pair are the same height.


Master Florentine shoemaker Salvatore Ferragamo joins other notable designers such as Jimmy Choo and Manolo Blahnik in this hall of fame, but the first attributed wearer of the high heel, Catherine de Medici, little realised that she was beginning an indefatigable craze when she wore a pair of heels at her wedding in 1533, thus starting a trend adopted by members of royalty throughout Europe, including noblemen who wore high heeled shoes as a means of increasing their stature. Other notable shoe icons are Imelda Marcos who boasted owning an estimated 3,000 pairs, Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City (played by Sarah Jessica Parker) who was proposed to with a blue Manolo Blahnik, oh, and let’s not forget Cinderella. All other shoe-aholics out there strut along to the V&A now.

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain at the V&A Musuem until 31st January 2016. For more information and to purchase tickets visit the website.