Stepping Out, Footwear at UC Davis (Exhibition Review)

Today, I’m honored to present an exhibition review by the well respected curator Inez Brooks-Myers. She received her academic training at UC Berkeley, with a BA in Decorative Art (minors in Anthropology and History) and an MA in Design (with an emphasis on historic costume in museums). Brooks-Myers is a Fellow of the Costume Society of American and Curator of Costume and Textiles at the Oakland Museum of California. (“A New State of Mind”, Oakland Museum of California, Spring 2010). Here is her review of Stepping Out: Footwear From Around the World.

Nora Cary, who recently graduated from the undergraduate program in Design at the University of California, Davis, organized the exhibition “Stepping Out: Footwear from Around the World” which opened on May 11, 2009, at the UC Davis Design Museum in Walker Hall. As background, Cary visited the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, Canada. The Bata, its research papers, and extensive collection were an inspiration to her. Coming back to the Davis campus she enthusiastically worked on the exhibition with other Design students representing fields such as exhibition design, interior design and visual communications. The exhibited artifacts primarily came from the UC Davis Design Collections, with a few borrowed pieces. There were four garments on display, along with associated shoes.

To the left, as you enter the gallery, the first garment is a child’s taffeta dress which had been dated to the 1870s, but from the styling, I would say it is more likely from the 1860s. Sadly the dress-bodice and skirt-were exhibited with a vertical separation of about 6-8 inches. Before you can read the label, you immediately think of the popular sun dresses of the late 1940s, with their bare midriffs and full skirts. Of course, when you read the label, you understand that the dress is nineteenth century, and was never meant to be displayed conveying a bare midriff concept. The shoes with this dress are among the earliest dated shoes in the Davis collection.

Close-by the child’s taffeta dress Cary chose to display an ivory colored silk satin wedding gown that is dated from the 1860s. It is interesting to the viewer because the two sleeves of the bodice exhibit different hemline treatments. No explanation is offered, so conjecture can run rampant. When I attended the exhibition someone suggested that the sleeves were done by two different people who finished and attached them to the bodice at the last minute, so the bride just had to make do. A more logical suggestion was that the left sleeve had been “conserved” at some later time, hence the different treatment. Not being able to examine the garment from the inside out we all can guess.

However, this garment also suffered from an awkward mode of display. Not only is the front of the gown approximately 12 or more inches from the floor (making one think of the wedding gowns popular in the 1920s with a short hem in the front, and some type of train in the back-the wrong visual information from an 1860s garment) but, the “bones” of the armature poke the garment with disquieting jabs of metal, spoiling what should have been a smooth and curved display line, simulating the human body.

In the corner near the wedding gown is an exciting outfit (hat, jacket, trousers and boots) from Bolivia, dated 1990. It is described as a “Man’s Folkloric Dance Costume.” It is a dazzling visual symphony of blue and green satin, black leather, sequins and beads of many colors, and passementerie. The boots to be worn with this outfit have also been decorated. This is not the type of garment that you can usually find in an exhibition on a university campus. U.C. Davis is different. Their collections offer a wide variety of garments from fashionable European and American dress to exquisite ethnographic and folk garments from various cultures around the globe.

The shoes on display convey the breadth of scope of the U.C. Davis collections. There are many Chinese shoes in the exhibition. Some are embroidered; others are decorated with beads and rickrack. Yes, rickrack. World acknowledged expert, Candace Kling, a member of the Board of Directors of the Western Region of the Costume of America, whose research and work focuses on ribbon and fabric manipulation used as trim, showed some of the attendees at the exhibition how the rickrack trim was made on the pair of Chinese shoes.

There are also shoes from the Philippines. Some of these examples have colorful, carved platform soles. There are shoes from Pakistan. In reviewing the exhibition for a Karachi, Pakistan newspaper, the headline read: “Pakistan Shoe Wows US Museum!” There are shoes from Turkey and from India. There are geta and zori from Japan. Some of the exhibition labels could be clearer; for example a pair of zori is described as “zori sandals” in what seems like a redundant comment. One such pair of zori, made of wood, is particularly intriguing to study because a single round of wood was used in the creation. Cut in half, one piece made the right zori, the other the left. You can see the rings of wood as they would have continued around and around. However, most notable is the fact that other such pieces in the exhibition show human use. This pair of zori is unworn; no toe marks are found here.

There are shoes that were sold at I. Magnin and Co. Other shoes speak of the fun, hip and youthful trends of the 1970s such as those sold at Fiorucci. There are plaited leather shoes from the 1980s by Maud Frizon. Traditional fashion shoes and tradition folk shoes mingle easily in this exhibition.

What I consider to be one of the real strengths of the Davis collection is their gathering of contemporary shoes. Probably spurred by last year’s U.C. Davis exhibition on “sustainable and recycled clothing” done by Susan Avila and Adele Zhang, the Davis Design program has a nice collection of “green” shoes. In this exhibition is a pair of boots dating from 2008 by Terra Plana “Worn Again Boots” featuring salvaged fabric and organic leather. S B Eco Sneaks, also dating 2008, are made from recycled rubber [tires] and organic cotton.

Most of the shoes in the exhibition are sitting on suspended shelving units of perforated metal. The concept is attractive, although perhaps not the most practical for a display done in “earthquake country.” The fourth garment in the exhibition is an ivory colored wool coat, without a collar, dating from the early twentieth century and inexplicably labeled as a “duster.” This is not a duster to be worn in one of those new-fangled automobiles, to keep the dirt of the road away from your clothing. This is more the type of coat one would wear to a dinner or a reception. It is has a very decorative treatment in the front and each of its five buttons is covered with embroidered net.

As you exit the small Design Museum at Davis, you want more. Hopefully the Design Program will continue to treat us to exhibitions highlighting the various segments of their collections. Hopefully, the University will allocate more space for such cultural activities appealing to diverse audiences.

Inez Brooks-Myers

Thanks so much to Inez for providing us with this thoughtful examination and armchair tour. For those interested in more detailed information on the subject, Brooks-Myers recommends reading:

*Photography by Heather Vaughan

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  • Lydia Tanji August 05, 2009 01.52 pm

    Dear Heather and Inez:
    THANK YOU! What a wonderful way to share an exhibition with those of us who have missed it. Inez, your erudite comments enliven the exhibition experience.

    Has anyone been able to do this for the ‘Writing in Threads’ exhibition in Santa Fe, that originated at the University of Hawaii?

    Thanks also to UCD – what a great experience for the students to actually put on exhibitions. I wish I’d had that when I was there. Keep up the wonderful exhibitions!

  • Ingrid Mida August 13, 2009 07.08 am

    How wonderful that you could share so many photos from the exhibition. It is almost as good as being there!
    I often visit the Bata Shoe Museum. It is a real gem of a museum and a must see if you are ever in Toronto!

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  • Dennis Wheeler September 16, 2011 05.00 pm

    Just happened to be browsing through the web and ran across this article. It was fun for me to see how many of the pictured shoes were from the collection of the late Gaza Bowen. The round zori you mention (which I believe are actually geta) were from a onsen (hot springs) in Japan. Unfortunately, I forget the name of the onsen. (Marion Clayden might remember — they were a gift from her to Gaza). These round geta are a trademark of this particular onsen and are provided for the use of guests. Very much enjoyed the pictures of the show and commentary by Inez. Thanks!


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