Shoes: Pleasure and Pain at the V&A

By Jessica Harpley

vam shoes.jpg

{image – V&A}

Shoes: few items in our wardrobes provoke such frenzied desire and fervent collection. Fewer still can lay claim to our hearts, and money, in spite of questionable practicality and comfort. The V&A Museum’s latest fashion exhibition explores our 3,000 year-old relationship with shoes, using “extremes of footwear” to demonstrate their cultural significance, transformative capacity and construction. The exhibition’s title, Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, encapsulates the duality of footwear in being objects of both beauty and discomfort, simultaneously empowering and restraining. Neon lights spell out the title upon arrival, bolstering the kinky notion of fetish implied by ‘pleasure and pain.’ This sensual theme extends throughout the lower, entry level of the two-tier exhibition; here, the dark environment creates a sense of the boudoir.

The exhibition is divided into five sections: ‘Transformation’, ‘Status’, and ‘Seduction’ on the lower-level present a cornucopia of footwear, using examples across time and space to demonstrate the ways in which people interact with footwear; ‘Creation’ and ‘Obsession’ on the upper-level concentrates on the manufacture and technology of footwear, and tells the stories of prolific shoe collectors. Here, the space is lighter and airy, feeling somewhat disconnected from the space below.

Undoubtedly, the lower-level is the main attraction with its creative display of ostentatious, and occasionally more humble, shoes. Avoiding the usual approach of a chronological or geographic narrative, the displays are admirable in their mixing of old and new, challenging the view that outlandish footwear is exclusive to modern fashions. The size and innate sculptural quality of shoes lend themselves well to display, allowing for a range of imaginative vignettes. Despite the abundance of footwear exhibited, the displays never feel cluttered, with each pair retaining prominence.

Displays contain one personal story, photograph or depiction in art pertaining to a particular pair of shoes; however more could have been done to put the shoes into bodily context. The exhibition struggles in acknowledging the reality of these shoes being worn; some were visually so far removed from what we would consider footwear it is difficult to envisage a person occupying them, or their overall affect within a complete ensemble.

The range of footwear exhibited is overwhelmingly female orientated, reminding us that the most ergonomically challenging, “extreme” footwear is reserved for women, who may have the luxury of seemingly limitless choice, but have to pay for it with discomfort. In mixing high-street and designer shoes, the exhibition strives for relatability, something made explicit in the Obsession section, where historical and designer collections sit with those of high-street shoes and sneakers. This insight into the psychology of avid consumption serves to balance the making and material cultures angle of the preceding sections. On the lower level, cultural stories feel unexplored in favour of aesthetic spectacle, socially and bodily divorcing the product from wearer. Unusually for a ‘fashion’ exhibition, the tone isn’t aspirational, but celebratory, with entertainment value managing to disguise the areas which lack rigour.

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain at the V&A is on until 31 January 2016. Click here for more information and booking.

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