Exhibition Review: Shoes: Pain and Pleasure, V&A Museum

In the run up to Christmas, I thought I would treat myself to a double V&A Museum visit and see two current exhibitions that close in the new year.  The first is Shoes: Pain and Pleasure, within the Fashion Galleries, on until 31 January 2016 and the second is The Fabric of India, on until 10 January 2016.

Both exhibitions attempt to open a window onto the V&A’s exhaustive collection by bringing to light objects that have been overlooked or forgotten through thematic curation.  Given that most fashion, dress and textile exhibitions favour the chronological approach to curation, it is great to see two exhibitions in the same place attempting an alternative approach.  I do think that displaying artifacts by theme encourages the visitor to have more of a conversational interaction with an exhibition, where you might dip in and out of voices that pique your interest.

Given that both exhibitions are quite large, I will focus on Shoes: Pleasure and Pain this week and The Fabric of India in two weeks time for my last post of 2016.

An upstairs display focuses on the design and production of shoes

With Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, I had the pleasure of a curator’s tour as organised by the brilliant Fashion Research Network. Anyone who is studying fashion and dress at postgraduate level in Britain should make sure they are connected to this small but excellent study resource.

The tour was given by Lucia Savi, research assistant for the exhibition and colleague of the curator Helen Persson.  Savi was an engaging and informative guide, keen to share her knowledge about both the objects and the curatorial approach.  I was also impressed by the amount of time Savi gave to us at the end for questions, of which there were many.

Display techniques were designed to make the shoes visible and the labels readable

According to Savi, the exhibition was inspired by the V&A’s collection of over 2,000 pairs of shoes.  The curator Persson was fascinated by how little the way in which shoes are worn and understood has changed over time.  The result is two floors of exhibits that focus on the significance of shoes, from symbols of social status to objects of obsession.  All of this is achieved through the display of approximately 250 pairs, of which two thirds are from the V&A’s own collection.

Downstairs has the feel of a boudoir

The ground floor of the exhibition feels a bit like you have just stepped into a Twin Peaks scene crossed with a decadent brothel interior.  Inside the cases, shoes appear on podiums, linger near dancing poles or float from the ceiling.  It is as if you entered someone’s rather luxurious and potentially erotic dressing room.  Savi explained that they wanted it to feel like a boudoir so there are lots of purple velvet curtains surrounding the display cases.  It might also be the influence of Agent Provocateur, one of the exhibition’s supporters.

A display focuses on the theme of seduction

Walking around the ground floor, the exhibits are arranged by the themes of transformation, seduction and status.  There are many fantastic examples within each theme, drawn from a broad historical and geographical sweep that begins in ancient Egypt and ends in contemporary London. Celebrity and designer footwear sits alongside royal and aristocratic footwear. There is also a good balance of mens and womens shoes.

Savi pointed out the designer Vivienne Westwood’s moc croc platforms that came to fame in 1993 on the catwalk when they were worn and stumbled in by the model Naomi Campbell. We were told by Savi that the public would expect to see these shoes in the exhibition hence their inclusion.

Campbell stumbles in Westwood’s platforms, 1993

I wondered whether other shoes on display were decided upon in terms of their familiarity with the public audience.  It might also explain why I was so excited to see a pair of early 17th century mens’ velvet shoes on display.  They were accompanied by a portrait of Dudley, 3rd Earl of North, which can be found in the V&A’s British Galleries.  I have spent much time admiring Dudley’s dress in the portrait as well as using it as an example of extreme fashion for various educational tours.  It was very pleasing to see an object that extended my familiarity with another object.

Dudley, the 3rd Baron North, painted 1615. Note the shoes with gigantic pompoms

What is also great about the exhibition is that they have many examples from a wide range of designers.  It’s possible to see Christian Louboutin next to Emma Hope or Patrick Cox next to unknown makers.   Yet, while the exhibition highlights the importance of status when it comes to footwear, the examples given tend to focus on those who can afford shoes beyond necessity.  This is not really the place to see what people wear everyday, such as trainers and workboots. The exhibition is not as concerned with footwear for different groups of people, such as children or those with physical disabilities.

A collaboration between Christian Louboutin and David Lynch resulted in a film about a pair of shoes that make it impossible to walk

Savi told us that many people were keen to know where and when was the first heel so two displays are dedicated to the topic of high heels. These include a pair of Egyptian bathing clogs from 1800 that at 28.5cm are the highest heel in the exhibition.  It was interesting and perhaps not surprising to note that heels emerged in Asia before coming to Europe in the late 16th century.  These displays feel like they are aimed at the visitor who prefers their exhibitions curated with chronology in mind.  While it is not explicit within the exhibition, the curators have included an interactive timeline on the website, which I think is a good compromise.  It should be said that the accompanying online resources for this exhibition are very good.

Egyptian bathing sandals,1800s, made from wood and mother of pearl. Courtesy V&A

Upstairs, the exhibition appears to eschew the cosy bedroom feeling below, instead favouring a more scientific approach to the matter of shoes and their designs. Savi suggested that the aesthetic was more in line with a pharmacy or laboratory, where the creation and production of footwear is the focal point.  This is supported by shoe x-rays used as graphical images across the display and split screen projections of a film about shoemaking specially commissioned for the exhibition.

Upstairs, the displays favour a more scientific approach in their presentation of shoes. This includes the disassembly of several pairs

The last section looks at the role of collecting shoes, highlighting a range of personal collections from the well known to the unknown.  You can see one of Imelda Marco’s shoes next to a selection lent by ‘Katie’ whose collection is carefully categorised and displayed in her home.

Katie’s collection of shoes displayed in the exhibition

Overall I really enjoyed this exhibition.  From the moment you encounter the glass slipper immortalised in the fairy tale Cinderella at the beginning of the exhibition, you are drawn into a world where shoes offer us a range of stories from myths and legends to science fiction and romance.  Shoes: Pleasure and Pain is like stepping into an amazing library whereby each exhibit offers us a riveting read.

Swarovski slipper created for the Cinderella film and displayed at the start of the exhibition


Opening image credit: High & Mighty shoot, American Vogue, February 1995 (model: Nadja Auermann) Dolce & Gabbana suit, 1995 © Estate of Helmut Newton / Maconochie Photography https://a61a085359000702575d-1091780f292ed74c8a63cc6ff151398e.ssl.cf3.rackcdn.com/00053162-600×864.jpeg

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