Shoes Symposium at the V&A

by Anushka Tay


{Chopines, c.1600,© Victoria & Albert  Museum, London}

Last week, I was fortunate to be able to attend the Shoes symposium at the V&A. Held in conjunction with the current exhibition Shoes: Pleasure and Pain (until 31 January), it was a varied series of lectures and discussions designed to enrich an understanding of the exhibition.

The day was in two halves. The morning talks featuring lectures by shoe specialists from a variety of fields; the afternoon talks were a series of discussions with contemporary footwear practitioners. Overall, the day continued the exhibition’s themes of shoes as emblematic of power, fantasy and desire.

The lectures featured a really interesting selection of topics. A whirlwind history of the high heel by Elizabeth Semmelhack, Senior curator of the Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, considered the cultural implications of high footwear for men and women since the development of the chopine platform (see above image).

Art and costume historian Aileen Ribeiro spoke on shoes in art, and considered some artists’ designs and creations of shoes. Dress historian Hilary Davidson delivered a talk on the presence of Cinderella shoes in folk tales around the world, proving that the mythical component of beautiful but impractical shoes has a long history of deep-seated human desires.

Historian Thomas Turner presented the development of the lawn tennis shoe in late Victorian England, considering the place of the shoe and the game in culture and society. Finally, Bob Watts of Dorset Orthopaedic gave a very different presentation about prosthetic limbs, alluding to the carved wooden pair that his company created in conjunction with Alexander McQueen.


{Chopines, c.1600,© Victoria & Albert  Museum, London}

I was only able to stay for one of the discussions with contemporary shoe designers, but this had far more focus on shoes as a commodity. It didn’t go into depth on further topics of symbolic or historical components of shoes, focussing instead on brand creation and business issues. Additionally, it was a luxury women’s shoe brand; thus, did not really explore any further new themes, after we had heard the morning’s discussions on desire, fantasy, luxury materials and very high heels.

The talks overall had a high focus on women’s shoes, which is rather typical of ‘fashion’ events. Additionally, the focus was primarily on Western/European shoes. Some lecturers touched upon shoes in other cultures, but did not go into depth. It would have been really interesting to learn about different cultures, as the exhibition itself does give examples from around the world.

Nonetheless, the lectures were intelligent, well-delivered, and very enjoyable, and I would certainly recommend attending a study day or symposium at the V&A in the future. The talks really explored ideas raised in the exhibition in much more depth, providing further insight and a greater understanding of these familiar, and not-so-familiar, objects.

The next study day at the V&A is London Couture – on tomorrow. Click here for more information.

Click here to see future conferences.

Click here to see other educational events at the V&A.

N.B. I was offered a free ticket to attend this symposium by University of the Arts London; however all opinions are my own and unsponsored. 


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