Shoes: Pleasure and Pain at the Victoria & Albert Museum

26 July 2015

The transformative power of extreme footwear is explored in the V&A’s summer 2015 fashion exhibition, Shoes: Pleasure and Pain. On display are more than 250 pairs of historic and contemporary shoes from around the world, many for the first time. Curator, Helen Persson, has sourced shoes from private individuals, wardrobes of high profile figures including Marilyn Monroe, Queen Victoria, Sarah Jessica Parker and Lady Gaga, and history: sandals originating from ancient history to 16th-centurty chopines, designed to lift skirts above muddy streets. Also on display are footwear for men and women by 70 named designers including Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin, Jimmy Choo and Prada.

Exhibition curator, Helen Perss, sums it up: “Shoes are one of the most telling aspects of dress. Beautiful, sculptural objects, they are also powerful indicators of gender, status, identity, taste and even sexual preference. Our choice in shoes can help project an image of who we want to be.”


Installation view of Shoes: Pleasure and Pain Victoria and Albert Museum, London

And who could forget the world’s most iconic ballet slippers? Those designed for the actress, Moira Shearer, to wear in the 1948 film, The Red Shoes.

Red ballet shoes made for Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) in The Red Shoes (1948), silk satin, braid and leather, England by Freed of London (founded in 1929). Photograph reproduced with the kind permission of Northampton Museums and Art Gallery

The exhibition is shown over two floors. The luxurious, boudoir design of the ground floor gallery examines three themes: transformation, status and seduction. ‘Transformation’ presents shoes that are the things of myth and legend, opening with different cultural inspirations of the Cinderella story from across the globe. It explores the concept of shoes being empowering as passed down through folklore, and the concept of fairy-tale shoemakers, whose designs will magically transform the life of the wearer. ‘Status’ reveals how impractical shoes have been worn to represent privileged and leisurely lifestyles – their design, shape and material can often make them unsuitable for walking – and how shoes also dictate the way in which the wearer moves. On display are the infamous Vivienne Westwood blue platforms worn by Naomi Campbell in 1993. This section also demonstrates how historically shoe fashions originated from the European royal courts. Shoes such as the ‘Pompadour’, worn by trend-setting women in the 18th-century French court sit together with designs by some of the most well known names in fashion today, including Alexander McQueen. The ‘Seduction’ section shows shoes that represent an expression of sexual empowerment or a passive source of pleasure, including high Japanese geta, extreme heels and tight-laced leather boots.

Installation view of Shoes: Pleasure and Pain Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In contrast, the laboratory style setting of the first floor gallery is dedicated to dissecting the process involved in designing and creating footwear, laying out the story from concept to final shoes. Designer sketches, materials, embellishments and shoe lasts, such as the lasts created by H & M Rayne for Princess Diana, are on show, alongside ‘pullovers’ from Roger Vivier for Christian Dior.

The last section looks at the future of shoe design, with experiments of material and shapes, mouldings and plastics. On display is footwear that pushes the boundaries of possibility, including the form-pressed ‘Nova’ shoes designed by Zaha Hadid with an unsupported 16cms heel.

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain at the V&A runs to 31 January 2016.

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Images by CELLOPHANELAND* and the V&A.