In 1995, a giant shoebox of a building (literally a concrete shoe box with a slightly tipped lid) opened at 327 Bloor Street West in Toronto to house one of the finest shoe collections in the world. Inside the Bata Shoe Museum, there are over 12,500 sets of shoes and shoe-related artifacts (such as socks, stockings, shoe-making tools) from around the world, including western and non-western footwear as well as ancient and indigenous cultures.
Senior curator Elizabeth Semmelhack is part of a team that organizes the roster of shows within the permanent and exhibition galleries, as well as a lively lecture and film series. Exhibitions in recent years have included: Roger Vivier, Process to Perfection; Roaring Twenties: Heels, Hemlines and High Spirits; Socks: Between You and Your Shoes; Shoes in Art; and On a Pedestal. This museum is one of my favourites anywhere, not only for the quality of the exhibitions and scholarship, but also because the curators and staff are friendly and welcoming to all, including students, visiting researchers, and shoe-aholics alike!
Accessibility is a touchstone topic for me, since my work in the Ryerson Fashion Research Centre is predicated on making that Collection an open and friendly resource to faculty, students, visiting researchers and designers. While I was editing the shoes that had been donated to Ryerson over the past 31 years, I decided to de-accession a substantial portion of them, because I knew that Ryerson fashion students have access to a broader range and better quality examples at the Bata Shoe Museum. Few curators would risk inviting an entire class of first year fashion students to come for a visit, but I witnessed Bata Shoe Museum Assistant Curator Sarah Beam-Borg do just such a thing last fall when she guest lectured at Ryerson’s School of Fashion. For these reasons, the Bata Shoe Museum seemed like the next logical visit on my behind-the-scenes visits with curators of fashion in the museum. My conversation with Senior curator Elizabeth Semmelhack took place in Elizabeth’s office on April 5, 2013 and has been condensed and edited below.
Ingrid: Let’s begin with a quick list of highlights. What is the oldest pair of shoes in the Collection?
Elizabeth: A pair of ancient Egyptian funerary shoes from 2500 BC.
Ingrid: Most recent acquisition?
Elizabeth: We received lots of donations for our upcoming sneaker culture show, including a pair of Pierre Hardy sneakers and Prada sneakers.
Ingrid: Rarest pair?
Elizabeth: Perhaps a pair of Chimu boots from the mid-15th century
Ingrid: What is your favourite pair of shoes?
Elizabeth: There is a pair of 1770 moccasins, possibly Mohawk, dating back to the time of the American Revolution. This beautifully made pair of moccasins is in perfect condition but still has the footprint of the man that wore them inside. When see this imprint, I feel history collapsing.
Ingrid: Which pair would you grab if there was a fire or flood?
Elizabeth: That’s a really tough question. I’d probably grab a pair of 18th century shoes, because each one was handmade and is absolutely unique and beautiful in its own way.
Ingrid: Your storage facility seems so unconventional with shoes displayed openly and was the topic of some discussion at my recent visit to FIDM Museum. How is this possible? How do you control dust?
Elizabeth: Since this is a private museum, the building was specifically designed so that the shoes could be stored openly. There are special filtration and ventilation units for the collection storage rooms that control humidity, temperature and air quality. This open access is of great benefit from a curatorial standpoint, because it allows me to make connections more easily than if I had to open archival boxes in order to see inside.
Ingrid: The upcoming show on sneaker culture seems like somewhat of a departure from shoes as art objects or shoes as a feminine accessory.
Elizabeth: Yes it is. After studying high heel culture for so long, it became apparent to me that people assume shoes are gendered. Shoe obsession has been associated with women, but men also have a shoe culture. Men often assume that this museum has nothing for them and with this exhibition, we hope to appeal to a different demographic.
Ingrid: Were there any surprises in your research for the sneaker culture exhibition?
Elizabeth: For men, there are few places where they can play with form and colour in what they wear and sneakers allow them to accessorize, especially since they do not have to wear ties anymore. Sneakers represent idealized masculinity and youth culture, and also share a visual reference with other objects of male desire like an aerodynamic sports car. They can also be associated with sports celebrity. It also was surprising to learn that collecting sneakers seems to be organized differently, in that men want certain shoes and conceive of acquiring a complete set, whereas a woman collector often buys shoes as a discrete object based on aesthetic choices like a work of art. Sneakers have a linkage to play and offer a visual reference to the deconstruction of the working persona.
Ingrid: Why are shoes now “the thing”?
Elizabeth: Certain accessories of dress like hats and jewelry used to be markers of status. As wardrobes have become more informal and more democratized, shoes have become the accessory that convey status, social meaning and gender. For example, two women can wear the identical jeans and t-shirt, but if one of them wears a pair of Christian Louboutin heels and the other wears flats, social meaning is conveyed through those choices. Shoes have become the marker that can literally transform the outfit.
The Bata Shoe Museum is located on the south-west corner of Bloor Street West and St. George Avenue in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Their upcoming show “Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture” opens on April 25, 2013. I’ll be attending the opening with my teenage son, knowing that it might be the ONLY fashion-related exhibition he’ll ever be excited to see with me. I might just have to invest in a pair of beautiful sneakers for myself!