Good Shoe! London exhibit puts footwear in the spotlight

shoes-feature

‘Parakeet’ shoes, by Caroline Groves, England, 2014. Photography by Dan Lowe

By Shalmali Pal

It may seem a bit odd that Clarks would sponsor an exhibit called “Shoes: Pleasure and Pain” at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK. After all, the company is known for producing very practical footwear, including the Desert Boot, which would seem out of step with the exhibit’s declaration that it highlights the “impractical, unfunctional and overly decorated.”

But “Shoes: Pleasure and Pain,” which runs through the end of January 2016, is ultimately a celebration of the artistry and engineering that go into footwear, and any shoe manufacturer can support that. (An interesting aside: London is a particularly fitting place for the show, for some obvious reasons and some that are less familiar. Sure, it’s a global fashion capital, but it also happens to be the burial place, at Highgate Cemetery, of Issachar Zacharie, chiropodist/podiatrist to Abraham Lincoln!)

The exhibit is divided into two parts: The main show offers a history of shoes, with many examples of the aforementioned impractical and overly decorated. There’s a pair of 19th century wedding sandals from India, rendered with intricately inlaid silver and gold, and Roger Vivier for Christian Dior heels from the mid-20th century that are equally ornate.

The exhibit then takes the viewer through the ages with examples of footwear that are similarly beautiful, but also potentially hazardous to one’s foot health, like stilettos festooned with feathers, metal spikes, leather fringe, or crystals. Featured high-end designers include Christian Louboutin, Jimmy Choo, and, of course, Manolo Blahnik of “Sex & the City” fame.

Desert boots, light brown suede, by Clarks, 1994. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Desert boots, light brown suede, by Clarks, 1994. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Then there’s the pain element: The sky-high heels are obvious in their crimes against lower extremity biomechanics. But some of the featured flats are equally treacherous, with zero arch support and narrow toe boxes (check out the gilded and marbled leather English oxfords circa 1925), along with platforms that are so tall, they look as if they have to be summited rather than donned, such as Vivienne Westwood’s 12-inch “mock-crocs.”

It’s in the pain arena that the exhibit falls a bit short: It would have been interesting to have some discussion or description of how shoes affect the feet, whether it’s excess pressures on the forefoot from a pair of pumps or the complete lack of support from barely there strappy sandals.

The second part of the exhibit offers computer modeling of how shoes are designed and constructed, from last to laces. There’s also an area devoted to a number of private shoe collections—these are folks who amass shoes as artwork.

My favorite section was on the “future shoe”—footwear created and customized with 3D printing. If these shoes come to fruition on a mass-market level, would it be the ultimate boon to lower extremity professionals whose patients currently refuse to comply with their prescribed footwear? Foot cosmesis could be a thing of the past if patients could easily obtain customized shoes that met their sartorial preferences as well as their clinical needs.

“Shoes: Pleasure and Pain,” is open until January 31, 2016, at the Victoria and Albert Museum. For more information, visit vam.ac.uk.

Shalmali Pal is a freelance writer based in Tucson, AZ.

Wedding toe-knob paduka, silver and gold over wood, India, 1800s.

Wedding toe-knob paduka, silver and gold over wood, India, 1800s.

Mens' shoes, gilded and marbled leather, Northamptonshire, England, 1925. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Men’s shoes, gilded and marbled leather, Northamptonshire, England, 1925. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Evening shoe, beaded silk and leather, France, 1958-1960. Made by Roger Vivier for Christian Dior. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Evening shoe, beaded silk and leather, France, 1958-1960. Made by Roger Vivier for Christian Dior. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

High & Mighty shoot, American Vogue, February 1995. © Estate of Helmut Newton / Maconochie Photography

High & Mighty shoot, American Vogue, February 1995. © Estate of Helmut Newton / Maconochie Photography.