Sunday, July 05, 2015

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain

I’m lucky enough to be invited to a number of interesting previews at the Victoria & Albert Museum, but they rarely pulsate with such an erotic charge of sexiness and power as the footwear on display in Shoes: Pleasure & Pain, the V & A’s new exhibition. It ranges from Ancient Egyptian gold leaf sandals, to Chinese lotus shoes for ladies with ‘lily bud’ bound feet, to 17th century musketeers’ boots with wide tops – the original ‘swagger boots’ surely, and all the way to modern Manolo Blahniks and Jimmy Choos. En route there are enough 18th and 19th century shoes to allow me to write a suitably historical post which I hope will interest you.
The exhibition has been designed to display the power and seductiveness of shoes. It opens with an invitation to consider shoes’ mythic role as objects of power. Take Cinderella, whose story’s ancient roots spread across Europe to China. The glass slippers have the power to transform Cinderella’s life, but it is important that she be a worthy recipient of the shoes’ gift. Shoes can be dangerous, too, as in Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Red Shoes; these shoes will condemn the person who wears them to death. Shoes, we realize, have the power to be many things but they are rarely just shoes.
Moira Shearer’s ballet shoes in the 1948 film, ‘The Red Shoes’
The exhibition moves on to seduction. The next few ground floor display cases exude a bordello-like feel, with padded and buttoned walls in crimson velvet with dark, sultry lighting to suit. In the background, you can just hear a woman’s husky laughter and a man murmuring – what? When I arrived, a hunky photographer with a tripod was crouched intently over a 19th century, dark red leather high-heeled laced up boot with fur round the top. Its legend told us that whenever fashion dictated that corset lacing tightened, so, too, did the lacing on boots, adding to the erotic frisson, doubtless. 
A photographer concentrating
In the 18th and the 19th centuries, mules were popular. The most obvious thing about mules is that you can’t run in them. In fact, that’s the whole point, they are only ever temporary attached to feet. Somehow, the V & A seems to hint, wherever a woman is wearing mules, somewhere in the room there is a bed or a sofa. And, of course, men, too, had their own mules which could be easily kicked off!
Male mules, 18th century
Later, the display cases turn deep purple – the colour of power – and here the curator, Helen Persson, invites us to see shoes as ‘Beautiful, sculptured objects; they are also powerful indications of gender status, identity, taste and even sexual preference.’ The shoes themselves dictate the wearer’s stance and how she, or he, walks. Here shoes are about status.   
Pompadour shoes, 18th century
Take the Pompadour shoes above. They are beautiful but wholly impractical; they tilt the wearer forward so that she is forced to take small steps. But that doesn’t matter because these shoes demonstrate her power. Other people will run about doing her errands for her.
Italian shoes, 1770-1789
These Italian shoes in black silk satin and leather with embroidered and decorated pointed toes and peg heels are designed to show off a small foot and shapely leg under an ankle length dress. The lady concerned will have to balance carefully on those heels but, doubtless, a maid – or a gentleman – will be on hand to help. 
Men’s slippers with red heels. French 1725
Men’s status, too, can be gauged from their shoes. Take the slippers with red heels. These indoor summer shoes are elegantly made in green velvet with gold embroidery and their crowning glory is the red heels. The red heels indicate that their owner has been presented at Versailles which, naturally, he wants to show off.
Flat shoes, 1851
Above is an example of ladies’ ordinary flat silk-satin shoes with thin flat soles that were ubiquitous throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. One can easily imagine Jane Austen’s characters wearing them in the house or at an evening party – perhaps decorated with ‘shoe roses’ like those acquired by the Bennet girls from Meryton prior to the Netherfield ball.  
Leather, pink silk and linen flat shoes, 1790-1800
What is interesting about the pink shoes is, not only that they are very similar in style to the 1851 pair, but that, unusually, they could be bought ready-made from a warehouse in Jermyn Street, which made them much cheaper than a made to measure pair. In fact, they are one of the earliest examples of a ready to wear item.  
Queen Victoria’s flat shoes, 1840
Lastly, here is a pair of flat shoes in silk, gold thread and leather from 1840 and once owned by Queen Victoria. They are top of the range; they fit perfectly and the black silk rosettes were made especially for the shoes. 
Shoes: Pleasure & Pain runs until 31st January, 2016. It is sponsored by Clarks, supported by Agent Provocateur lingerie and with additional thanks to The Worshipful Company of Cordwainers.
I thought the exhibition was terrific. I emerged exhausted but energized.
Photographs by Elizabeth Hawksley.
Elizabeth Hawksley


Amanda said...

Thanks for such an inspiring post, Elizabeth. You've made me long to see the exhibition.

Jo Beverley said...

Lovely post. I didn't know that red heels were a sign that a man had been presented at Versaille, only that they were the height of style. I wonder if there was a similar symbol for presentation at the British court. Probably not.

Christina Courtenay said...

Wonderful, Elizabeth, I will definitely go and see this for myself!

Unknown said...

What a fascinating post. I'll never look at shoes in quite the same way again.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you for your comment, Amanda. I can't imagine any RNA member not loving it - and the modern shoes are simply astonishing. They include Vivienne Westwood's infamous blue platforms worn by Naomi Campbell in 1995 - and a photograph of what happened!

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I'm delighted you enjoyed my post, Jo. I agree with your assessment - I, too, doubt that there was a distinguishing symbol of having been presented at the British court - far too dull!

Once you know the red heel connection, you can spot them everywhere in male 'Swagger portraits' by artists like Pompeo Battoni.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you for commenting, Christina. I knew it would be up your street. I rather admired the photographers, too!

And thank you, too, Janet. The modern creations by Manolo Blanik, Jimmy Choo, Prada and Christian Louboutin, etc. are amazing, too. Upstairs, the exhibition looks at how shoes are made and there are film interviews with various designers and shoemakers.

It's well worth a visit.