Over the course of my recent holiday travels I was pleased to finally make it to the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. This institution, as you may have already surmised, is completely devoted to the history of footwear. The museum is comprised of four floors, each which house separate exhibitions and I was thrilled to take the time to wander through all of them.
The lower level of the museum contains a semi-permanent exhibition that provides an overview of footwear through time and geography. While this exhibit was the most straightforward, arranged in a chronological time-line sort of layout in comparison to the more aesthetically considered special exhibitions on display throughout the other floors of the museum– I found this installation to be the most compelling. After years of looking at footwear in painting and illustration, film and photography, and in bits and pieces in other museum shows, it was extremely gratifying to walk the perimeter of the room and examine physical specimens of centuries of footwear in this manner. I am a huge proponent of object-based study, and the Bata Shoe Museum made a strong case for the merits of this approach time and time again.
The timeline begins with the Anthropologist Mary Leakey’s discovery of human footprints in Laetoli Tanzania in volcanic ash in the year 1976, addressing the significance of upright walking for human development, and ends in the 21st century with the largest pair of sneakers that I have ever seen. In between were examples of Etruscan footwear, bejeweled Indian Mojaris and Padukas, Renaissance velvet Chopines, Turkish Nalins with bells around the perimeter, and examples of the Islamic Babouche to name a few. While I have seen many examples of small silk-embroidered gin lien shoes from China designed to accommodate bound feet, it was fascinating to see heavily treaded black leather boots of this size meant for women from lower socio-economic classes who were required to do manual labor, exemplifying the far reach of foot-binding practices in early China. Another pair from the early 20th century when the custom had become outlawed incorporated ‘western-style’ elements into Chinese women’s shoes as a way of accommodating this transitionary time when many women still had modified feet from earlier years of binding. A personal favorite from western fashion was a pair of teal, navy, and silver shoes produced by André Perugia c. 1937-38 for Elsa Schiaparelli’s Circus Collection that were previously owned by la Spinelli.
Other floors included a small exhibition: Footprints on the World Stage, which contained an eclectic assortment of ‘celebrity’ footwear that ranged from shoes worn by Justin Bieber to the socks that Napoleon Bonaparte wore during his exile to St. Helen in 1821. There was a charming pair of crocheted peacock feather shoes worn by Margaret Atwood and a mid-1980s pair of Halston-designed pumps that were worn by Elizabeth Taylor. This portion of the museum was the most hit or miss. While certain items, such as a black leather “Beatle boot” worn by John Lennon create a historical link between popular historical footwear styles and the influence that celebrity can maintain within fashion– as much as I was intrigued to find a pair of socks worn by Napoleon Bonaparte, I’m not sure what their presentation in this context really said about the history of footwear.
Beauty, Identity, Pride: Native North American Footwear, showcased the strength of the museum’s collection, and provided inspiring examples of fringing, beadwork, and other forms of embellishment while revealing interesting information about natural dyes and traditional Native American design. The top floor of the museum has an exhibition titled Art in Shoes ~ Shoes in Art, which included a fascinating mix of caricature and illustration juxtaposed with fine-art and decorative arts objects that approached footwear from a variety of perspectives.
The Roaring Twenties: Heels, Hemlines, and High Spirits was a perfect balance between aesthetics and history. Examining the tenets of modernism in a post-war society, this exhibition did an excellent job of illustrating the significance that societal change inflicted on footwear. Through themes like the women’s suffrage movement and speakeasy culture, social convention was shown to influence ideas about the symbolic nature of dress and footwear. Via technological changes such as the growth of the automobile industry and increasing industrialization, practicality concerns about the very shapes of shoes as well as appreciation for certain methods of hand-embellishment verse machine made production were addressed. The significance of lifestyle activity, such as the growth of jazz culture in an era when dancing was a considerable form of entertainment for many was exemplified through an emphasis on the decorative and dynamic nature of 1920s footwear. As a supplement to the striking shoes on display that included items like a jewel encrusted pair of André Pérugia shoes, there were also some hats, a pair of dresses, and many fashion illustrations that provided context for the many cases of footwear. Additionally, there were areas where 1920s film clips were projected, which contributed to the overall milieu and provided the necessary motion that is tantamount to footwear.
Overall, I found the Bata Shoe Museum to be a fun and engaging visit. The museum offers a variety of events and educational programming that encourages all ages and interest levels, and the programming seemed to balance the diversity of their audience in a skillful way. For those who will not be in the Toronto area anytime soon, the museum also hosts online exhibitions that can be found here.
All images are from the Roaring Twenties exhibition taken during my visit to the museum. Click here for more information about the Bata Shoe Museum.