Shoes at the V&A: Take Two

A second take on the popular Shoes exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

By Hiroko Oriyama

shoes exhib 2

{Image  – V&A}

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, displays around 200 pairs of both women’s and men’s shoes from different countries around the world. The exhibition is curated by Helen Persson of the V&A’s Asia Department, and includes shoes from ancient Egypt to contemporary exclusive designer shoes. The purpose of the exhibition is to show us not a history of shoes, but power of shoes throughout history. It is organised thematically and divided into five sections: Transformation, Status, Seduction, Creation, and Obsession. Various types of shoes were selected for each section by considering what stories these shoes are telling us.

The exhibition shows that shoes are a representation of the wearer’s status or identity. Some shoes are extremely unpractical, not everyday shoes for everyday life. As a Japanese person, I highly recommend seeing the extremely high-heeled shoes worn by Japanese high-class prostitutes. You can see how they wore and walked in these shoes in the film ‘Yoshiwara enjo’ (directed by Hideo Gosha, 1987), screened on the ground floor of the exhibition. However, overall there is not enough visual imagery showing how the shoes were worn. Even though each pair of shoes has a written explanation of when, where or what types of shoes they are, it is not enough to understand how these are worn if the audience does not have specific knowledge. If they had included more paintings or photographs, it would have been more interesting, and helped the audience to understand more. Shoes themselves do not have power: they give the wearer power. So I would say, there should have been more concern about the wearer.

Of course, there are spatial limitations, and we can imagine how some shoes are worn. But it is necessary for others; for example, shoes for bound feet in China have an image next to them. But the photograph is not clear enough to understand how such extremely tiny shoes could have actually been worn. There are some paintings, photographs and films but I would say they are not enough for the purpose of the exhibition. Hence, considering the spatial limitations, I could say that there might be too many shoes for this exhibition.

shoes exhib 1

{Image – V&A}

Many shoes are selected from the contemporary period, and are from very exclusive and luxury brands such as Christian Louboutin. These shoes are a representation of contemporary women’s status. However, the display of too many exclusive designers shoes reminded me of the shoe section of department stores such as Selfridges. Though it is not a historical exhibition, it should display a more balanced selection of periods since the curators think that shoes have had great impact throughout history.

Overall, this exhibition has had success and attracted audiences by displaying many unique shoes. However, the purpose of this exhibition is not to entertain us but to encourage us to see the power of shoes. When it comes to this point, this exhibition should have been more concerned about their display methods, and a balance of historical periods.

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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