Daily BulletinDaily Bulletin

The Conversation

  • Written by The Conversation
imageEvening shoe, beaded silk and leather, Roger Vivier (1907–98) for Christian Dior. 1958-60.© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Shoes long ago eclipsed their primary function – to protect feet. For thousands of years shoes have elicited extremes of both pain and pleasure. It is this long and varied history of shoes that the V&A’s forthcoming exhibition showcases, spanning more than 2,000 years. The oldest pair on show date back to Ancient Egypt, while more contemporary designs show that advancements in technology and 3D printing have pushed the bounds of what is technically possible to achieve with footwear.

As an object the shoe has transformed from its functional origins to become wearable art. Some of the more extreme shoes featured in this exhibition even demand questions as to their feasibility to be worn. More contemporary exhibits include Zaha Hadid’s Nova shoes, constructed with a 16.5cm heel.

imageNOVA. Zaha Hadid for United Nude.© Image courtesy of United Nude

Vertiginous to an extreme, the towering heights of heels are not, however, a modern-day phenomenon.

Dizzy heights

Renaissance Italy provides one of the most striking instances of the shoe’s extreme history. Venetian women of status popularised the wearing of a style called the chopine. These platform shoes were often crafted from wood or cork. And 15th-century Venetian gentlemen were very keen for their wives to wear these extremely high shoes, according to Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator at The Bata Shoe Museum. This was because of the way it hindered their mobility – and therefore, the idea goes, they would be less likely to run off with other men. Indeed, very often these women would have to be accompanied by attendants to ensure that they didn’t topple over. Chopines would be an average of around five and a half inches but their height was rumoured to have reached up to 20 inches.

imageChopines, Punched kid leather over carved pine, Venice, Italy, c. 1600s.© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Not only did the elevation project the wearer’s social standing, but the height served to protect them from the dirty streets of Venice. As elevations became more extreme, Venetian sumptuary laws were even brought in to address the ridiculous nature of these shoes. In 1430 the Venetian Major Council forbade the wearing of chopines that were more than three and a half inches in height. Chopines were by this point condemned as an insult to God, perilous to the wearer’s souls as well as their bodies.

Although the chopine was highly gendered and extreme shoes were more usually associated with women, men were, historically, also avid heel wearers, as Rebecca Shawcross reveals in her historical overview of shoes. This was epitomised perfectly by France’s King Louis XIV, whose red-heeled shoes became an emblem of political allegiance: aristocrats wore red heels to demonstrate their allegiance to the King.

imageLouis XIV of France, Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1701.

Barbaric beauty

Fast forward a few hundred years and the somewhat barbaric nature of the shoe was far from forgotten. In 1937 Magritte painted The Red Model, which exemplified the rather unnatural relationship between shoes and the foot. The central focus of the painting is a pair of worn leather boots which merge into the image of human feet.

This torturous side of shoes comes to the fore in the exhibition by the presence of lotus shoes and the historic practice of foot binding. Foot binding, once the symbol of beauty and social standing, was outlawed in China in 1911. The traditional and extreme custom of binding and the wearing of lotus shoes was culturally meaningful and ensured that women were able to find suitable husbands. Traditionally feet were bound from a young age, stunting growth as the small foot and subsequent impeded mobility was a sign of great beauty.

imageChinese lotus shoes for bound feet, 1911, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.Daniel Schwen, CC BY-SA

The introduction of fetish shoes in the late 19th century brought another dimension to the painful but pleasurable experience of shoes. Fetish footwear was defined by exaggerated heel heights: clad in shoes the foot here became a mysterious, yet powerful weapon.

In 1910 for example, soft-core pornography journal Photo Bits published a serial story: Peggy Paget’s Patent Paralysing Pedal Props. These were 18-inch heels. Constrained inside a narrow and very high shoe, the foot exerted a feeling of great pain, counterbalanced by the pleasure of exciting the imagination of both wearer and observer.

imageHigh & Mighty shoot, American Vogue (model: Nadja Auermann), Dolce & Gabbana suit, Summer 1995.© Estate of Helmut Newton / Maconochie Photography

The interest in fetish shoes was supported by a wealth of popular literature at the time that further fuelled footwear’s association with the erotic. These shoes, in a sense, represented the objectification of femininity and later ignited the continuing debate between shoes as metaphors of empowerment or subordination.

These historic examples of shoes may seem extreme and even ridiculous. But they were all designed and worn to reflect a range of different cultural and social meanings. Through the presentation of a long, significant and sometimes exotic history, the V&A shows how shoes – although they might seem frivolous or ridiculous – have come to be understood as serious objects of cultural reference. Today, extreme shoes by designers like Christian Louboutin are very much part of mainstream culture. Women are still often prepared to endure pain for pleasure.

Naomi Braithwaite does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Authors: The Conversation

Read more http://theconversation.com/the-history-of-shoes-has-been-frivolous-ridiculous-and-extreme-42782

COVID-19: what Australian universities can do to recover from the loss of international student fees


Crisis, disintegration and hope: only urgent intervention can save New Zealand's media


Our needlessly precise definition of a recession is causing us needless trouble


The Conversation


$1.8 billion boost for local government

The Federal Liberal and Nationals Government will deliver a $1.8 billion boost for road and community projects through local governments across Australia.   The package of support will help lo...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Scott Morrison press conference

PRIME MINISTER: This is a tough day for Australia, a very tough day. Almost 600,000 jobs have been lost, every one of them devastating for those Australians, for their families, for their commun...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison


Local economic recovery plans will help towns and regions hit by bushfires get back on their feet as part of a new $650 million package of support from the Morrison Government.   As part of th...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Business News

Your Complete Checklist For Hiring Professional Proofreading Services

Let's get one thing straight — a good proofreader is a writer's best friend. They are both incomplete without each other. The writer creates and the proofreader perfects. While there are a count...

News Company - avatar News Company

8 Simple Tips to Choose Your Team Members

The first-hand contributors to a particular project play an integral role in its successful completion. Identifying the most well-equipped and relevant team members for your project can have a great...

Katherine Guzman - avatar Katherine Guzman

How To Choose The Right Filing Cabinet For Your Office

If you’ve worked in an office, you should know how important filing cabinets are for proper storage of important documents. What about the cloud, you might ask? It’s as simple as this: even with man...

News Company - avatar News Company

News Company Media Core

Content & Technology Connecting Global Audiences

More Information - Less Opinion