The agony and the ecstasy of shoes
ART DE VIVRE (The Philippine Star) - December 8, 2015 - 9:00am

The ‘Shoes: Pleasure and Pain’ exhibit features footwear worn by the Queen Mother, Daphne Guinness, Lady Gaga, David Beckham and even Imelda Marcos. But many of the interesting pieces among the 200 featured are actually from anonymous owners, dating back to ancient times.

An exhibit of shoes would certainly be incomplete without a pair owned by former First Lady Imelda Marcos. She is known, after all, for amassing a prized collection of about 1,200 pairs which the UK Daily Mail describes as “a collection that most women would kill for.” She has definitely secured a place for the Philippines on the international fashion map which the Victoria & Albert Museum chose to recognize in its ongoing exhibition titled “Shoes: Pleasure and Pain.” Other celebrities are featured, too, like the Queen Mother, Daphne Guinness, Lady Gaga and David Beckham. But many of the interesting pieces among the 200 featured are actually from anonymous owners, dating back to ancient times.

The earliest forms of footwear were probably sandals which were made from skins, barks and fibers as the most basic form of protection. Function gave way to form, however, as can be seen in the Egyptian sandal of leather and papyrus made between 30 BC and 300 AD. The pointed front and back, incised detailing on the sides and gilding made this a designed, highly prized fashion item which gave it value and provided the owner with a certain status.

Shoe designs progressed to more outlandish, impractical models as a way of showing off wealth. The long and narrow poulaines with toes curled up were first seen in the 12th century in Europe and became more exaggerated in length by the 15th century. India has its own version with an extremely long curling toe. An early modern European pair of gentleman’s boots has foldovers so large that the wearer was forced to walk bowlegged. A slap-soled shoe attached to a flat panel that connects the bottom of the high heel to the toe was very fashionable in the 17th century, elevating the wearer above imaginary dirt and the rest of the populace as well as providing a reassuring sound as the shoe made contact with the floor. The sound it made eventually heralded the coming of a “real” lady before she even entered the room.

High hopes

The more obvious form of status could of course be obtained by virtue of height which makes sky-high stilettos and platform shoes just as popular today as the day they were invented. Their origins actually go back to as early as 220 BC when Greek actors wore platforms on stage to be more visible — the more important the role, the higher the shoes. A 100 BC Greek terracotta statuette of Aphrodite shows her wearing platform sandals. The chopines of the late 15th to early 17th century allowed the upper-class European woman to rise above the masses. In Venice, where they were exceptionally high at over 54 cm., maids were needed to assist the wearer. Hidden under the skirts, higher footwear required more fabric to create longer skirts, another indication of the status of the wearer. No different from the ’70s glam-rock platform boots that needed more yardage to create longer and wider bell-bottom pants.

In the Ottoman empire, the one-foot-tall qabaqib or slip-on stilts embellished with mother-of-pearl inlay were worn by a wealthy young woman during her wedding ceremony which partly took place in a hammam. She was practically placed on a pedestal to be perused by her fiancé in all her freshly scrubbed, naked glory.

The oiran, the highest class of prostitutes in Japan, had to maneuver with heavy and ridiculously tall wooden clogs that also required assistance and made them adopt a very slow, ritualized walk that made it easier for passersby to appreciate the beauty of their face, clothes and accessories. Vivienne Westwood’s 1993 Gillie shoes in blue mock croc had a nine-inch heel and five-inch platform that made it easier to admire Naomi Campbell but it also caused her spectacular fall on the ramp, unwittingly catapulting her to supermodel fame. 

The restriction of movement for women seemed to be a desired feminine trait which was achieved in a very cruel and painful way in China by binding the feet of young girls into a three-inch golden lotus shape. This was achieved by breaking the toe bones, bending them underneath the soles and wrapping them tightly to prevent further growth. Bound feet were considered highly erotic both for their shape and for the shuffling gait that had to be adopted when trying to walk. Binding feet became a popular way of displaying status since wealthy women who did not need their feet to work could afford to have their feet bound. Intricately embroidered “lotus shoes” in silk were made for the upper class elite and were popular during the Song Dynasty until the early 20th century when anti-footbinding campaigns reached their height. 

In the 19th century, however, the womenfolk of the ruling Manchus did not initially bind their feet and instead wore “horse-hoof” shoes embroidered with floral and plant motifs in multicolored silk thread. Coming from a taller race, their 6.5 cm tall heels with a curved “horse hoof” shape allowed them to tower even more above the diminutive Han Chinese women while imitating the swaying gait caused by bound feet. They eventually were not satisfied with the simulation, however, and gave in to a less severe form of binding that decreased the width of their feet, resulting in “knife-shaped feet.”

Film director David Lynch and shoe designer Christian Louboutin did their own simulation of bound feet with their collaboration on a tableau showing a woman wearing shoes that have impossibly angled heels, forcing her to crawl in submission rather than walk. An extreme example as it may be, it illustrates how shoes can be designed as fetishes and sex objects. Although men may have designed them to subjugate women, women can also wear them to seduce, manipulate and eventually subjugate men.

Aside from status and seduction, shoes endow the wearer with a certain power. Sky-high stilettos not only provide the extra height advantage but extend the leg and provide a tension that is sexy both for the wearer and the viewer. “Why are women obsessed with heels?,” asks Louboutin. “A woman knows they are an unnatural extension of her body and they give her extra body language. I try to create a flirty tool of communication that, happily, will never end.”

Sex and the stiletto

“Shoes are there to emphasize character. It’s about knowing yourself and projecting fantasy,” says Manolo Blahnik, the shoe designer who was immortalized in the HBO TV series Sex and the City starring Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw, the shoe-obsessed New York journalist whose worst nightmare becomes a reality when she gets mugged at gunpoint for her shoes. “It’s impossible to overestimate the impact of Sex and the City,” says V&A exhibit curator Helen Persson who observes how the obsession with shoes has reached a mass audience. Even women who previously had no exposure to the world of high fashion were starting to recognize not only leading names of shoe designers but also the styles they were famous for, like stilettos for Blahnik, red heels for Louboutin and crystals for Jimmy Choo.

Statement shoes become obsessions because of their attention-grabbing design, rarity and hefty price tags. The second floor of the exhibit is devoted to these obsessed collectors led by Imelda Marcos who has a special, standalone vitrine to display a lone pair of Beltrami black satin stiletto slingbacks with rhinestones to represent the over 1,000 pairs found in the basement of Malacañang Palace when their family fled during the People Power Revolution of 1986.

The V&A itself is included with a panoramic wall of stacked shoeboxes representing the 2,500 pairs in the museum’s archive. Lionel Bussey collected women’s shoes from 1914 till his death in 1969, accumulating around 600 pairs, all from high street labels like Dolcis and Lilley & Skinner. They’re all in different sizes and unused, many even unwrapped which perhaps rules out the speculation that he wore them secretly. He had an eye for fashion and appreciated beautiful shoes so he probably just indulged himself during a time when a man could collect ladies’ shoes just as unselfconsciously as one would put together a stamp collection. A sneaker fiend named “Jeff” has about 1,000 pairs but finds it hard to maintain the individuality of his collection because of the current popularity of sneakers, with fanatics coveting the latest limited-edition that comes up.

To satisfy the constant demand for the new, shoe designers face formidable challenges by using their skill, ingenuity, and the latest technology to push the boundaries of possibility. Even those from other disciplines have joined the fray, like architect Zaha Hadid who used her expertise in complex structures to create the “Nova” with its cantilevered six-inch heel. Dominic Wilcox has incorporated a GPS device in the heel of a prototype that brings to mind The Wizard of Oz character Dorothy who would click her magic ruby shoes together to take her home. Andreia Chaves’ “Invisible Naked” shoes fuse a treatise on optical illusion with the wonders of 3D Printing.

With the intense competition, advertising plays a big role in vying for consumer attention which hinges on the transformative power of shoes: There are promises of enhanced beauty, elevated status, and even speed in the case of athletic shoes. It’s a premise that has its roots in folklore and fairy tales like Cinderella, whose glass slipper takes her up the social ladder to the point that she is able to marry a prince. The 17th century tale Hop O’ My Thumb has a diminutive hero who saves his brothers from starvation by stealing a pair of “seven league” boots which gives him superhuman speed and magical powers.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is a pair of ballet shoes from the 1948 Powell-Pressburger film The Red Shoes starring Moira Shearer. Instead of the usual candy pink, these shoes appear to have been dipped in blood. In the Hans Christian Andersen tale on which the movie is based, the vain and spoiled heroine Karen shows off her red shoes in church and is condemned to dance in them non-stop against her will. Since she can’t even remove the shoes, she has an executioner chop off her feet, but the shoes continue to dance even with her amputated feet inside them. It was a grisly tale meant to be a warning for children back then. Could it be a caveat as well for where an irrational obsession with shoes can lead today?





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“Shoes: Pleasure and Pain” runs until Jan. 31, 2016 at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. For information, visit Follow the authors on Facebook — Ricky Toledo Chito Vijandre, Instagram @ rickytchitov, and Twitter @RickyToledo23.

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