Shoes — with their ability to titillate, hobble and confer power — are the crux of a show dedicated to this both utilitarian and expressive garment. The show, “Shoes: Pleasure and Pain,” is at the Savannah College of Art’s SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film. Except for the corset, no garment probably affects the body as profoundly as the shoe—or does so as publicly.
There is a lot to mull over in “Shoes,” and it’s no wonder considering this exhibition’s origins. The show was curated by Helen Persson at one of the most revered institutions when it comes to presentation of design and fashion, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. SCAD FASH is the only Southeastern venue for a traveling exhibition that gives serious attention to design’s meaning alongside its visual pleasures. The exhibition is organized into themes: Transformation, Seduction, Status, Obsession, Creation, though those categories can often feel arbitrary when so many of these shoes blend two or more of these elements.
For the pain side of the equation in “Shoes: Pleasure and Pain,” there are silk shoes from 1800-1900 China so tiny they look crafted for dolls but are in fact the miniature footwear made for Chinese bound feet. Pain was often bound up with status. The fetish of incapacitation continued in the Chinese Manchu horse-hoof shoe, a sole balanced on a single projecting stump that required help from maids if its upper class wearer ever decided to venture outside. In Japan, a similar fetish for erotically enfeebled women resulted in the impossible-to-walk-in geta shoes — wooden sandals with a single velvet cord to keep the foot lashed to the towering architecture — worn by high-status oiran prostitutes.
Many of the shoes on view seem like a cruel joke, designed purposefully to illustrate a woman’s ornamental status. Some might be inclined to see a modern corollary in the knife’s edge luxury Jimmy Choo and Christian Louboutin stilettos, also on display. It’s hard to avoid the truth that smug denizens of the 21st century are no more sensible when it comes to shoes than our ancestors: impracticality, status and discomfort still define much of our footwear.
More than 200 shoes are on view, from famous ones, like the pair of ruby toe shoes worn by Moira Shearer in the iconic 1948 Michael Powell dance film “The Red Shoes,” to the glass slipper created by celebrated costume designer Sandy Powell for the 2015 film “Cinderella,” on loan from the Walt Disney Company. Also on display are the wood and plastic “lasts” used by bespoke shoe designers for the likes of Princess Diana and Charlie Chaplin. The fascinating “Creation” section of the exhibition shows the art of building couture shoes.
There are some missteps in “Shoes,” like the decision to house a large portion of the shoes on display in a room with eyeball peepholes. While the intent is clear, to emphasize the naughty, voyeuristic themes of the exhibition, the fact is that bending over and peering at the shoes from that mediated distance keeps the design at arms length. Other exhibition strategies more successfully highlight the sexy side of shoes with neon arrows and glass cases as in the display of women’s shoes in “Obsession,” owned by a British mechanical engineer Lionel Ernest Bussey, who amassed a collection of 600 pairs of shoes over his lifetime.
If you didn’t think shoes were the kinkiest clothing item yet invented, then “Shoes: Pleasure and Pain” at SCAD FASH does a very good job of making that case.
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