I never pack an overnight bag without putting the name of my destination + “fashion museum” into a search engine. When planning my recent holiday trip to the Philippines, I continued the ritual, but already holding the hope that the nation’s, possibly the world’s most famous fashion artefacts were on display on one of the archipelago’s seven thousand islands.
Yes, you guessed it – the shoe collection of former first lady Imelda Marcos. If, like me, you caught the news from the USA sometime in the mid-1980s, you would be nominally familiar with the political climate in the Philippines at the time, and how Imelda Marcos’ reported three thousand pairs of shoes came to symbolise the corruption and excess of the time and place. In order to focus on my visit the the Marikina Shoe Museum, and not on political history, the links included will allow for a quick refresher on Imelda Marcos’ biography and her husband’s rise and fall from power.
A peek at the museum’s website online before boarding the plane revealed that the district that is home to the museum is also known for the manufacture of shoes, and that the gallery exhibits not only the shoes of Imelda Marcos and other notable figures, but a display on the history of shoemaking in the region.
My incredibly gracious hosts were amused and surprised that I had heard of the museum, and brought me there for what was also their first visit. Following the museum trip, they added on a surprise jaunt to visit the world’s largest pair of shoes, made and on in display in the Marikina Shoe Gallery – where locally made footwear is thankfully available for sale at very affordable prices! The brown leather men’s oxfords which are seventeen feet long and eight feet wide, took seventy seven days to make and received the Guinness Book of World Records title in 2002.
The museum occupies a stand-alone Spanish Colonial style house in the centre of a bustling commercial district in the capital city of Manila. Outside the building a “walk of fame” comprised of tiles with the names of dignitaries and celebrities forms a path around the entrance. We were welcomed by staff, who offered us smiles, literature on the displays and kind permission to take photographs.
The impressive building, with high ceilings and exposed beams, is divided into two exhibition levels, the first which begins with a curious cabinet of shoe knick-knacks and novelties that were collected by a former mayor of Manila. It seemed like an odd place to start the exhibits, but there were so many alluring things inside the cabinet, that I didn’t wonder too long about the curatorial intent!
Following on, a large gallery lined with cabinets of shoes mounted on tilted shelves stands proudly displaying a pair of shoes worn by dozens of former Philippine presidents and government representatives. None of the shoes are particularly remarkable for their design or style, but the volume and historical value of the collection, as a portrait gallery of presidents, seemed worthy, even clever.
Slightly more aesthetically interesting were varied shoes worn by celebrities, performers, and other civilians of note in the adjacent cases. Each pair of shoes was labelled with the former owner/wearer’s name and their claim to fame, but no date or design information. Some shoe styles or brands are recognisable, but for the most part it is the collection as a whole rather than as parts that is most impressive.
Essentially, the preceding displays end up seeming like just a warm-up to the museum’s star collection. Around eight hundred of Imelda Marcos’ three thousand pairs of shoes fill the rest of the floor.
Arranged by style and colour, the shoes are uncanny. The effect is a bit like being in a very upscale vintage store at the center of a strange and slightly ominous fairy tale.
A painted portrait of Imelda, and a poster with vital statistics such as her shoe size are the only things which interrupt a nearly 360 degree expanse of shoe cabinets.
There are sandals and pumps and boots and mules…
and kitten heels and bedroom slippers.
Some are plain and some are beaded, gilt and sequinned. Some look dated and some have come back in style a few times since she wore them.
Unfortunately because the shoes aren’t dated the shoes are not given a voice as a design historical collection, but instead their display as a sort of wardrobe, with their visible evidence of wear preserves and presents them as both a collective symbol and a collection of moments of life lived.
The upper floor comprises the historical display outlining the development and practice of shoe-making in Marikina beginning in the nineteenth century. An antique diorama of cobblers is another curiosity that tells little, but delights the eye! However, a series of didactic panels offer a detailed illustrated account of the shoe manufacturing industry and its continued economic importance to the region.
Shoes from local producers still in business are displayed, along with shoe-related exhibition posters from other museums around the world.
The Marikina Shoe Museum is on the whole wonderful. It was founded by an individua and the collection was built through donations – starting with Imelda’s! However, the collection could definitely benefit from conservation, curatorial planning, research and inevitably funding. A recent BBC report on the museum was also a call for help to the international community – so if you are seeking a unique opportunity and love shoes, why not take a step toward getting in touch to lend a hand?
Imelda Marcos may be more famous than infamous in the popular consciousness, but no matter how she is viewed by history, her shoes and the Marikina Shoe Museum offer a valuable and fascinating insight into footwear as symbol of excess, product of industry and as a material portrait of individuals and of locales.
With warmest thanks to Patty and Ludwig for making my visit possible, memorable and wholly enjoyable!