Forget the feathered Manolo Blahniks and crystal-studded Jimmy Choos, the red-soled Louboutins and gold-platformed Vivienne Westwoods. The corner of a cabinet that most clearly tells the story of Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, a new exhibition at the VA, contains exquisite 19th-century Chinese silk shoes for bound feet which, at just 7.6cm long, showcase what was then considered the feminine ideal. Next to them are a hulking pair of Adidas basketball boots from the late 1980s; these are closer to the foot size of a small elephant than to a human.
The fact that shoes are often not foot-shaped is at the heart of what this exhibition is about. The cultural significance of shoes is a rich topic, and as a result has become fairly well-worn territory in recently years. The challenge for the VA is to use its unrivalled collection to bring something new to the topic. As its title suggests, Pleasure and Pain attempts to bring a fresh angle by dint of a full-frontal view of the perversity and strangeness of our relationship with shoes.
Here, “fairytale” shoes don’t necessarily feature satin or glitter. The first display takes the Cinderella story – the creation myth of the luxury shoe industry – and shows how this applies to men as well as women. The story of the Seven-League Boots from European folk tales, which allow the boy wearer to leap and run great distances at speed and so win fame and fortune, is presented next to a pair of modern football boots endorsed by David Beckham. It is a good lesson in how the transformative powers of shoes are used in marketing footwear to nine-old-boys, as well as to thirty-something women. An even-handed balance between male and female is a strength of this exhibition, as is a global perspective. (The exhibition’s curator, Helen Persson, is a specialist in Chinese textiles and dress.) Together, this broad sweep elevates the exhibition above the vacuous “window display” effect that too often characterises this kind of show.
The themes of the show are transformation, status and seduction. That these are all linked, and that sexuality is imprinted through their core like a stick of rock, is suggested by the decor: in a boudoir’s half light, areas are semi-divided by velvet curtains falling in thick crimson folds. Since one of the sponsors of the exhibition is Agent Provocateur, one assumes the suggestiveness is entirely deliberate.
While transformation is explored in kaleidoscopic versions of the Cinderella story, from football boots to the feathered sandals that Carrie Bradshaw loses in an episode of Sex and The City, status is about the myriad ways in which both men and women have always used shoes to signal power and rank. A tiny terracotta statuette of Aphrodite on loan from the British Museum, made in Greece in the first century BC, shows her wearing platform sandals. As Persson points out: “In ancient Rome and Greece, free men wore shoes and slaves didn’t. The distinction is as ancient, and as stark as that.” There are decorative men’s slippers from the Silk Road in the first century BC, and platforms to lift the wealthier merchant above the murky puddles of 16th-century Venice. The exhibition moves beyond the obvious associations of heels as a signifier of height and a luxurious lifestyle to show the humour and fun in shoe obsession: for example, the leopard-print boots made for a wealthy London woman in 1943, which circumnavigated rationing rules by being made out of her old coats.
The seduction theme is at its most striking in a pair of Christian Louboutin fetish shoes, whose high heel has been bent to be almost parallel with the sole of the foot, making them impossible to walk in. The wearer can move only by crawling. The underside of the shoes features a transparent panel through which the tender, squished soles of her feet are visible, as she crawls. (There is a fairly arresting photograph of a semi-naked woman crawling in the shoes, displayed alongside them.)
There is so much going on with shoes that fashion barely gets a look-in. The same embellishments – feathers, crystal, fur, animal skin – appear on shoes from a thousand years ago, and on this season’s collections. A pair of boots in this exhibition covered in black colobus monkey fur, made by Elsa Schiaparelli in 1938, have a direct link with next-season Gucci, where new designer Alessandro Michele has made fur slippers for the autumn 2015 collection. The monkey fur may no longer be real, but the look is the same. “Shoes don’t obey the laws of fashion, because they go so much deeper,” says Persson. “We have mens’ shoes from 19th-century India and women’s Roger Vivier shoes from the 1950s which are very similar in appearance, and also very similar in what they are projecting about the wearer.”
A pair of Mary Quant boots is displayed upside down to show the daisy imprinted in the sole: the wearer would leave a trail of daisies in his or her wake. This is just one, very 1960s manifestation of another theme of the show, which is how shoes affect movement and body language. A highlight is a montage of film clips, which connect shoes and character at key moments on film. Marilyn Monroe wiggles along a station platform in Some Like It Hot, her black heels and stockings filmed from behind; in Belle de Jour, Catherine Deneuve takes prim steps in her Vivier pumps as she ascends the staircase and rings an apartment bell; Michael J Fox time-travels with his space-age white Nikes in Back to the Future 2; the camera pans from toe to head as John Travolta peacocks along the pavement in Saturday Night Fever.
There is one shoe myth that this exhibition casts doubt on, however. Persson’s personal favourite exhibit is a simple, well-worn pair of mid-height white Salvatore Ferragamo pumps, from the personal collection of Marilyn Monroe. Contrary to the urban myth, which holds that Monroe walked on one heel slightly shorter than the other to accentuate that wiggle, these are the same height.
The exhibition opens on Saturday, 13 June.