Shoe fetishists rejoice: London’s V&A Museum has finally turned its attention to one of the world’s most enduring obsessions. “Shoes: Pleasure and Pain” is the exhibition opening Saturday, which makes use of the V&A’s enormous fashion archive and showcases 250 pairs of shoes, spanning 2,000 years and 20 countries.
The show explores every aspect of the theme — from famous collections (Imelda Marcos has contributed a pair) to the craft behind the shoe. Most intriguingly, it shows how humankind has consistently used footwear to express status, wealth, and general fabulousness. If you have a guilty conscience about your own shoe extravagances, comfort yourself with a pair of English shoes, made in 1750, that are decorated with diamonds and sapphires originally from the Russian crown jewels. Then there are the red high heels worn by European noblemen in the late 1600s, which were considered to emphasize their masculinity. And even in wartime, we could never resist: The exhibition includes a pair of ocelot-fur boots with red platforms, made during the Second World War using fabric from old coats, to circumvent rationing regulations.
A touch-screen timeline at the entrance to the show is tailor-made for shoe nerds — it informed me that the stiletto (first seen in the 1950s) was named after a Sicilian fighting knife, and that Converse All Stars have barely changed since they first came onto the market in 1917. Then there’s a room entitled Seduction, which focuses on shoes with sexual connotations — from stripper heels to men’s leather riding boots.
Curator Helen Persson, who has been working on “Pleasure and Pain” for the last two years, sat down with the Cut to talk about sore feet, fetishism, and Marilyn Monroe’s favorite shoes.
What struck me about the exhibition is that in footwear, we often prioritize style over comfort — and that seems to have been the case for a very long time.
Yes, I would say that we’ve been doing it since we started putting constructed footwear on our feet. If you look at archaeological materials, especially from Egypt, even then the shape of the shoes has no resemblance to the actual shape of the foot. So even 3,000 years ago, the style was much more important than the comfort. It’s very puzzling, because today we want everything to be as functional and comfortable and easy for us as possible. We wouldn’t accept this kind of pain with anything else, but we hardly even question it with shoes. I think it’s partly because they have this transformative promise: If you wear Manolo Blahniks, you will lead a wonderful, privileged life. But it’s also because shoes, more than anything else, completely change the way you feel. You either put on flat shoes and feel like you’re going to skip away — or high heels and your body posture just changes so drastically. They’re so closely linked with the body and how you move.
Over the last couple of years, flat shoes and sneakers have become much more fashionable. Could you ever see the stiletto dying out?
No. This is a trend — it’s typical of fashion, heels go up and down. We have much more variety today, and shoes for every occasion. So yes, I’ve got riding boots, flip-flops — I have the whole range, and I can choose. Heels might disappear for a while, but they’ll probably be back, because they’re also very linked with sexual attraction.
When you were researching the Seduction section of the exhibition, how much did you dip into the area of foot fetishism?
I did read some interesting stuff [laughs]. It’s a difficult subject and it didn’t really fit into the overall themes of the exhibition, because it is quite complex. It’s a different story and I didn’t want to fail to do it justice. But there is often a link between shoes and sex. In our exhibition, the ones that are most obviously for sex are the geta — the Japanese shoes, because they were worn by a woman who was selling her wares. With her shoes, she identified herself as a sex worker — a very expensive sex worker.
Do you have a favorite pair of shoes in the show?
They all have stories to tell. But if I could take a pair home with me, it would definitely be Marilyn Monroe’s shoes. I find them so plain. They’re just white pumps, nothing special about them, but she seems to have loved them. You can still see the imprints of her toes in the side, because she’d worn them a lot — so they’re really personal and intimate. And though she was a sex symbol, the shoes that she wore in her private life were so normal.
”Shoes: Pleasure and Pain” is at the V&A Museum in London from June 13 of this year to January 31, 2016.
This interview has been edited and condensed.