When we put on a brand new pair of shoes “we have pleasure, but suffer a little bit of pain” says Victoria and Albert Museum (V & A) curator Helen Persson on the opening of her unique exhibition, Pleasure and Pain. The exhibition showcases 2000 years of footwear through 250 pairs of shoes but don’t be fooled by its misleading title. Despite being supported by Agent Provocateur, the exhibition does not delve into the tantalising modes of shoe pornography (well, just a touch), but dabbles with the symbolic nuances of footwear from various periods in history, indigenous societies and modern civilisations.
The most painful shoe experience has to be wearing a pair of heels. For a woman, the ordeal of squeezing feet into a narrow space and walking above the ground, at least two to four inches high, for hours, drains the life out of female legs. The same applies to men too as Persson says, “they [also] need to break [new shoes] in”.
Some consumers collect hats while others prefer bags yet “Pleasure and Pain” is a haven for those who love shoes. Whether or not you like the look of Wedding padukas used in Indian weddings, Carrie Bradshaw’s Manolo Blahniks from “Sex and the City” or Christian Dior’s ‘Fabergé of shoes’ (which are all on show here), the exhibition explicitly proves that there’s an underlying value instilled in shoes. They influence the way we feel and how we look in society. Embedded in a shoe is an identity, a person’s financial status and tastes, possibly their pain threshold too.
The legendary blood red ballet slippers that were worn by Moira Shearer in the 1948 film, The Red Shoes are the first pair of shoes that catches the eye. They encapsulate feminine beauty and elegance, yet as the story demonstrates, the shoes are also the product of the heroine’s demise. Another classical phenomena is the Academy Award-winning designer, Sandy Powell’s Swarovski-made Cinderella slippers from the Disney film. They are so glass-like they practically blind you.
Yet the shoe fairytale also exists for men as well through the life of football. Next to the Cinderella and ballet slippers are a pair of today’s male football boots, endorsed by David Beckham.
Another section of the exhibition looks at the notion of power through 19th century Chinese silk shoes, which bounded female feet to short lengths as 7.6cm. To men, smaller feet encapsulated feminine attractiveness. Delving deeper into Chinese history, there’s the Qing dynasty and six-inch elevation shoes worn only by the women in the Manchu families. Embroidered and created with eloquent designs, they set themselves apart by being superior and tall as men compared to shorter Han women who suffered excruciating pain with their bounded feet.
In the Seduction section, viewers get a glimpse of the first type of black leather boots, which women of the 1890s would wear whilst shopping in Selfridges. Of course, the design originated from the brothels of 19th century Europe.
Soon the leather material became associated with dominance, authority and sex and the exhibition references the role of leather boots in formal military wear and 20th century sub-cultures like sadomasochists and BDSM. Yet fetish wear began to make an appearance in catwalk shows, particularly in Yves Saint Laurent shows with his “Tribute” sandal, which derived from the pole dancer’s platforms and Christian Louboutin’s “unwearable” shoes with high heels that had been bent so far that the soles parallel with the feet. Wearers have to crawl in order to move.
Vivienne Westwood’s blue, mock-crocodile skin, nine-inch, heels that made Naomi Campbell ‘a fashion road kill’ when she fell at a catwalk show in 1993, have an iconic place in the exhibition, as well as the shoes owned by Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines who purchased more than three thousand pair of shoes.
The exhibition explores the pinnacle role shoes play in several societies, not just the fashion world. Yet Pleasure and Pain is by no means perfect and spectators may feel disappointed.
Firstly, the title is a misnomer. ‘Pleasure’ and ‘pain’ are associative terms of BDSM and one could easily have thought the exhibition was a study of fetish footwear. Being supported by luxury lingerie brand, Agent Provocateur only concedes this. Secondly, the first floor dedicated to the creative process of shoes has very little to offer. It is a quarter of the size of the main area and shares more shoes in the window display style of a Clarks store (who are also supporting the exhibition). Yet what is more striking is the vast range of shoes and the limited time to understand them all. Had there been less shoes and more creative narratives focused on particular ones, viewers would learn something new and more in depth about shoes – the life of shoes, if you will.