By Carolina Reyes
Shortly after my arrival to London in mid-September, I was surprised to see advertisements for the V&A’s latest fashion display Shoes: Pleasure & Pain (June 13, 2015 – January 31, 2016). After all, it had only been a year since I had seen a similarly titled exhibition, Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe (September 10, 2014 – March 1, 2015) at the Brooklyn Museum, and it seemed unusual for two world-renowned institutions to put on exhibitions with such striking parallels within a short span of time.
Indeed, the advertisements featuring high-fashion model Nadja Auermann in crutches struggling up a set of stairs in a pair of sky-high and needle thin stilettos which surely test the acceptable limits of sensible footwear (even if for fashion’s sake) prepares the viewer for an exhibition more closely resembling Killer Heels – one that explores solely the high heel as a status symbol, fetish object and source of power throughout human history – than the one actually encountered.
The viewer quickly realizes that Shoes does indeed live up to its name, and whilst high heels and their association with fetishism and sexuality are certainly explored throughout the lower-level of Shoes, the wider range of artefacts, including pieces of footwear designed for men such as David Beckham’s “Brooklyn” football boots, provides the viewer with a more nuanced and holistic appreciation of the history and cultural significance of shoes.
Furthermore, the exhibition’s examination of the shoe as a commodity and collectible item throughout the upper-level was an important theme, which I felt had gone unexamined in Killer Heels. And, by more closely scrutinizing the impact of globalization on the industry of shoe production, I found it fascinating to learn in this section that in 1986 China produced just eight per cent of the world’s footwear, whilst today it is estimated that six out of ten pairs of shoes in the world are made there.
However, although Shoes’ stark displays of footwear fanatics’ collections in this segment did showcase society’s irrational obsession, Shoes and Killer Heels alike, could have taken more critical stances on our perhaps excessive preoccupation with designer footwear. Instead, both exhibitions seemed to pander to our fixation to possess couture shoes and their connection to celebrity culture. For example, Shoes justified the inclusion of a pair of Jimmy Choos because Carrie Bradshaw (a shoe fanatic in her own right) of Sex and the City exclaimed that she had “lost my Choo,” and greatly elevated the eponymous designer’s profile.
There were many similarities between Killer Heels and Shoes. Most notably, their utilization of documentary-style films to chronicle the creation of shoes from design to development, in addition to use of movie clips to draw connections between shoe styles and epochs.
Both Killer Heels and Shoes were beautifully curated and certainly each worth a visit (or a look at their videos online, see source links) as they provided the viewer with various, fascinating perspectives on iconic footwear from all over the world.