Published: January 9, 2017
By Jessica Skwire Routhier
SALEM, MASS. – The first thing you see as you approach “Shoes: Pleasure and Pain” at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) is not technically a shoe. Parked in the atrium of the museum’s light-filled modern building is Seattle artist David Crow’s “Red Stiletto Art Car” – a driveable automobile in the shape of a blood-red high-heeled pump. The visual effect is duplicated as you enter the main gallery, where an outsize black stiletto serves to introduce the show. Together, the two massive shoes echo one of the key images PEM is using to promote the exhibition: the simple but sculptural “Pigalle” by Christian Louboutin, dramatically lit and shot from below as if it were the Nike of Samothrace, its shiny, black patent-leather upper contrasting with the designer’s signature bright-red sole. Organized by and originally presented at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (V&A), “Shoes: Pleasure and Pain” is on view at PEM through March 12.
“We do believe in the element of surprise,” said PEM deputy director and the exhibition’s coordinating curator Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, musing over the two giant un-shoes that bookend the visitor experience. “So to see a monumental black stiletto in contrast to the red stiletto is a way of changing peoples’ way of looking at shoes because of their scale.”
In fact, it is evident throughout this exhibition that it is about more than “just” shoes. Crow’s art car, Hartigan notes, “has a great story about pleasure and pain,” in that the artist originally conceived it as a paean to his girlfriend, but ultimately completed it after their traumatic breakup. A similar theme unites New York artist Sebastian Errazuriz’s “12 Shoes for 12 Lovers,” a series of 3D-printed plastic sculptures that have titles like “The Heartbreaker” (red, with an arrow through it) and “The Boss” (black, with a set of brass knuckles lodged under the needlelike heel). “He’s used the metaphor of his relationship with different women,” Hartigan notes, “to get at the fact that shoes inevitably come to express an individual’s identity and how they interact with people.”
Errazuriz’s shoe sculptures, alluring as they are, can also seem vicious, tapping into complex cultural associations that interleave high heels with sexuality and submission, punishment and reward, and – yes – pleasure and pain.
“When you think about that interconnected identity of women and shoes – they are connected in both positive and more negative and complex ways,” Hartigan observes. “A woman in heels is important because she’s elevated. There are many conversations today about women viewing shoes as an expression of power… yet what those heels do to women’s feet and backs is cause for concern and can be disempowering in the long run.” Shoe scholar Elizabeth Semmelhack notes the same irony in her history of high heels, “The Allure of Power,” in the exhibition catalog. She wryly points out that in today’s world “it remains anathema for men to avail themselves of the ‘power’ so frequently attributed to the high heel.”
Both Semmelhack’s history and the exhibition itself highlight particularly extreme versions of high heels over time and across cultures: platform shoes known as chopines worn by Sixteenth Century European noblewomen, for instance, and the equally vertiginous geta worn by geisha in Japan, which Hartigan says are her favorite objects in the exhibition. “You immediately have to go to questions of, ‘How on earth could someone walk in something like that?'” she notes. “There are the implications of someone as a woman not being expected to move very much by virtue of the kind of profession she was in,” which pulls against our modern “notion of speed and brisk walking as a sign of success and purpose.”
Such shoes represent a fascinating subset of those on display: shoes that, unlike Crow’s and Errazuriz’s creations, were actually meant to be worn, and yet their forms are so exaggerated that they scarcely look like shoes. Other examples include the Nineteenth Century silver paduka, Indian wedding shoes with a tall platform and just a single between-the-toe knob to hold them on the feet; sexual fetish shoes by Louboutin and Japanese designer Noritaka Tatehana; space-age black boots by British designer Atalanta Weller that appear to be carved from chunks of basalt; and Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid’s “Nova” from 2013, a gravity-defying rubber, fiberglass and leather creation that wearers claim is actually quite comfortable.
The same can probably not be said of one of the most notoriously exaggerated shoe forms, the so-called “lotus shoe,” made for the bound feet of many Chinese women until the early Twentieth Century. The shoes seem impossibly small, and yet they were real footwear for the women who participated in the centuries-old practice of purposely distorting their feet into shrunken and folded-over “golden lilies” in pursuit of impossible ideals of beauty and status. Many of the lotus shoes on view from PEM’s collection, Hartigan notes, were purchased as souvenirs by Westerners traveling in China, who mistakenly thought that they were children’s shoes because of their scale.
Issues of pain and pleasure aside, for the moment at least, such shoes taken together also highlight another key feature of the show: its impressively broad view of shoes across time and cultures. That approach dovetails with the missions and collections of both the V&A, which focuses on design in the context of what the museum describes as 5,000 years of human creativity, and PEM, long known for the multicultural depth of its collections and exhibitions. That commitment is enhanced by the design and structure of the exhibition, in which shoes from different nationalities and time periods, instead of being Balkanized, are integrated into broad thematic groupings: Transformation, Status, Seduction, Creation and Obsession.
Engaging and effective design elements, idea-engineered by PEM staff, enhance each section in a unique way. Many of the impossibly high heels, for instance, are included in the Status section, perched on a varnished white grand piano or lined up in luxurious, custom-designed cabinets. The Transformation section, which opens the show, features cleverly mirrored glass cases that allow visitors to see their own shoes alongside the shoes on display.
“I felt very strongly about imprinting on the concept of shoes as transformative vehicles,” says Hartigan, adding that she did not want the installation at PEM to just look like a “sea of shoes.” She connects the focus on exhibition design to PEM’s current “fashion initiative,” which involves a series of exhibitions and acquisitions along with the creation of a new curatorial position and the carving out of dedicated space in the museum’s campus. The use of the term “fashion” is a conscious choice, Hartigan explains. “When you say ‘costumes and textiles,’ I think for more people than not, that can imply something more historical and from the past and at a distance from real life.”
By contrast, this initiative is designed to bring people in contact with “the role of what fashion is in our everyday lives.” In terms of shoes, that idea is being brought home not only with the current exhibition, but also with extensive related programming, including a shoe drive presented in partnership with Dress For Success, a global nonprofit that seeks, in part, to empower women entering the workforce by providing them with professional attire.
The exhibition is accompanied by a handsome catalog, written by the team of scholars assembled by the V&A. It includes a chapter about Britain’s key role in the development of mass shoe manufacturing. Supporting examples in the exhibition range from the ubiquitous silk dance slippers of the early 1800s – favored by Jane Austen heroines – to flashy, Jazz Age brogues by the Coxton Shoe Company. Not to be outdone, PEM’s curators augmented the exhibition with a discrete section dedicated to New England’s no-less-important role in the shoe industry. Featured here are late Nineteenth Century examples by the Haverhill, Mass., firm Hazen B. Goodrich and Company. The custom-beaded satin pumps by French designer Jacques Heim were sold by high-end Boston stores in the 1960s.
PEM’s presentation of the exhibition is also localized in the last section, Obsession, which highlights the private collections of individuals from the region: former ballet dancer Jimmy Raye, “Boston style maven” Marilyn Riseman and collector Lillian Bohlen, along with a selection of treasures from the collection of global fashion icon Iris Apfel.
It must be said that those who visit this exhibition seeking to be dazzled by high-fashion confections will not be disappointed. Examples range from the somewhat severe elegance of the aforementioned Louboutin stilettos to racecarlike Prada “Tail Light” shoes worn by pop star Kylie Minogue to a pair of bespoke Caroline Groves heels that feature actual parakeet wings along with silver talons and vintage French silk.
The show offers something of a survey of familiar names in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century couture: rainbow-hued Salvatore Ferragamo platform sandals, dating from the 1930s but oddly prescient of the 1970s; gloriously bejeweled pink evening shoes made by Roger Vivier for the House of Dior in the 1950s; and then, of course, to-die-for heels by designers like Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo, who became household names in the late 1990s and early 2000s due in part to the popularity of the television show Sex and the City. Even a jaded arts writer might become weak in the knees when face-to-face with a pair of deep green, feathered Jimmy Choo evening sandals – not to mention Louboutin’s “Anemone” pumps, in cream-colored silk satin with a scandalously low vamp, the heel counter topped by an exuberant red bow nearly as large as the shoe itself.
Such an emotional reaction to shoes is to be expected, Hartigan observes, and is perhaps not even entirely irrational. “We’re born with bare feet, and we have for whatever reason chosen to create shoes not only to protect our feet, but also decorate them… Shoes so closely relate to our body and our psyche and our emotions.” Universally and across cultures, then, shoes “bear witness to where you are coming from, who you are, who you would like to be.”
And in the end, of course, this is exactly what museums do – celebrate, document and facilitate human relationships and experiences with objects. Hartigan notes that this, in part, is why there is an important role for fashion in museums, a role that includes not only flashy, blockbuster exhibitions, but also a sustained commitment to scholarship, study and conservation. PEM is ready to step up and get it done.
The Peabody Essex Museum is at 161 Essex Street, East India Square, in Salem. For further information, pem.org or 866-745-1876.
Jessica Skwire Routhier is a writer, editor and independent art historian based in South Portland, Maine.
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