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Arts Review: Shoes: Pleasure and Pain @ Victoria and Albert Museum

16th June 2015

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My grandma owns the same style of sneakers in every colour imaginable. Her closet is neatly packed with a shade to match every outfit she has ever worn, or will ever wear.

I never thought much about her collection (other than the fact that it was slightly over the top) but the Victoria and Albert Museum, with the help of Clarks, has dove deeper into this obsession to create the ultimate reflection of shoes over the ages. The newly open exhibition, Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, takes a look at shoes across centuries and cultures and what they say about status, wealth, sex appeal and trend setters. The exhibit is set up thematically, with a mind blowing 250 pairs of shoes, from over 2,000 years, 20 countries and 70 designers.

What do your Nike sneakers, red bottom heels or gold studded flats say about you? You might think little when you roll out of bed and slip on the nearest shoe before you head to class, but if you take a harder look at shoe choice you can conclude a lot about culture and personality.

The V&A exhibit provides significant examples of how style can be translated to mean something larger. For example, the practicality of a shoe, or the ease in which one could walk while wearing it, could hint at a person’s status or wealth. Shoes that are more elaborate and harder to walk in suggest that the person avoided manual labour and spent much of the time inside, probably being waited on. Therefore, the more ridiculous the shoe, the higher the status.

Each section of the exhibit is dedicated to shoe designs that exude different traits. While following around the plush, dimly lit first floor you will explore how shoes inspired what was culturally sexy, the shift in influence from the wealthy class to designer brands, how shoe height defines status, and more. The designs will make you cringe in pain (specifically when you mentally attempt to stick your foot into the doll sized Chinese shoes for foot binding) and drool at the dazzling styles.

You’ll find styles that could only be worn by the most legendary, dramatic and influential figures like Marilyn Monroe, Queen Victoria, Sarah Jessica Parker and Lady Gaga. Shoe styles associated with these high profile celebrities help explain the shoe’s role in creating identity. Film clips on repeat bring attention to the importance of shoes to developing characters in modern and past entertainment. Through the film and physical examples viewers can see the painful sacrifice men and women make to portray cultural symbols with their fashion choice. Very few models, if any, were made for practicality and comfort.

Yet despite the promise of a bruised or blistered foot, footwear has become not only a trend and cultural symbol, but a collector’s item. After visiting the exhibit my grandmother’s rainbow stash of Keds seems less ridiculous and rather a form of personal expression. What do you think a collection of slippers would say about me?

As you roam the exhibit you’ll hear the soft clacking of elegant heels on tile around you. The stimulation and understanding of the mentality that surrounds a carefully selected shoe closet will leave you inspired to run out and buy a new pair of the perfect shoes to show off your personality to every stranger that gives a passing glance at your feet.

The exhibition is open now and continues until January. For more information visit

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