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Extreme footwear at the V&A: a step into the past

While they might seem a modern phenomenon, extreme heels have a history dating back almost 2,000 years. The VA exhibition, Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, arrives this summer and explores that history. While fashion in 2014 has swapped mega-platforms and 10in stilettos for midi-heels and pool sliders, extreme footwear, and our fascination with it, is in focus at the museum.

The exhibition, sponsored by both Clarks and Agent Provocateur, will explore the history of how and why women, and some men, have worn outlandish shoes in the pursuit of a certain look – and the pleasure we derive from shoes, perhaps over any other fashion item. “Shoes are one of the most telling aspects of dress,” commented curator Helen Persson. “Our choice in shoes can help project an image of who we want to be.”

‘Parakeet’ shoes, by Caroline Groves (1959). Photograph: Dan Lowe/VA Images

Different ways that shoes do that provide the structure of the exhibition and themes of the galleries. “Status” looks at shoes as power symbols, from the “pompadour” worn by the equivalent of it girls in 18th-century French court, to Alexander McQueen’s Armadillo shoe in 2010. “Seduction” explores shoes as objects of sexual desire – from laced-up bondage boots to the Japanese Geta sandals.

Chopines – punched kid leather over carved pine, Venice, Italy, c1600s. Photograph: Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The exhibits date back to sandals from Ancient Egypt decorated in gold leaf, and chopines, 16th-century platforms designed to keep silk skirts clean on muddy city streets, and shoes made for bound feet.

Culturally significant shoes are here, too. There’s a display dedicated to Cinderella’s glass slipper. The ballet shoes made for Moira Shearer to dance to her death in 1948’s The Red Shoes will be exhibited, along with those blue platforms that saw Naomi Campbell take a tumble on the Vivienne Westwood catwalk in 1993. Other designers included are Manolo Blahnik, Prada, Jimmy Choo and Christian Louboutin.

The silk satin, braid and leather ballet shoes made for Moira Shearer in the film The Red Shoes. Photograph: Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Shoes owned by both the famous – Marilyn Monroe and Queen Victoria, to name two – and the collector will be included. Six collectors provide the content for the final part of the exhibit – an apt conclusion, perhaps, for a commodity that routinely inspires the pleasure and pain of a lifetime obsession.

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