Shoes: Pleasure and Pain – Exhibition Review


Ancient Egypt meets contemporary catwalks in a dark take on the fashion and design industry this autumn at the Victoria & Albert Museum. The exhibition ‘Shoes: Pleasure and Pain’ transforms this iconic London venue from a museum of British Imperialism to a leader in the contemporary debate on gender and consumer culture. As promised, curator Helen Persson creates a world where decadent beauty entails pain, control and obsession.

Egyptian sandals, •c30 BCE-300 ADl © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Egyptian sandals, c30 BCE-300 AD © V&A Museum

Stepping into the purple velvet that lines the walls, I join the exhibition’s embrace of excess and desire. Like Cinderella, whose glass slipper rests on an honorary pillow (designed by Swarovski and worn by Lily James in the Disney film), I can feel the escapist craving for a life at the castle when faced with these luxurious objects. The exhibition is a celebration of design and craftsmanship. It is also a criticism of the naïve belief that fashion objects have the power to change who we are. This has forced me to reflect upon all the times when I bought a pair of new shoes for a date or an interview, and the sparkles on the glass slipper are a reminder that the idea is a fairy tale.

The penetrating intensity of the loud music disrupts the atmosphere created by the spectacular designs of the shoes surrounding me. As the display of footwear from Ancient Egypt to modern day illustrates, the flash of decadent fashion at first conceals its high price. The 25cm platform heels worn by an orian, a Japanese 16-17th century prostitute, was a signal of luxury, wealth and fashion. Designed with the expressed purpose of restricting movement, they demand a turning of the body in 90 degrees for each small step. The result can only be labelled a parade of sexuality.

The curator initiates a discussion of fashion and control by placing the platforms next to a pair of high lace boots by contemporary designer David Lynch. As the inverted heels of Lynch’s boots force the wearer to crawl, I realise that control and fetishism are more powerful elements of the fashion industry today than when the orian reigned as queen of pleasure. A pair of modern biker boots unite the two extreme pieces in an illustration of the irreversible link between fashion and sex.

Chopines, Italy © V&A Museum
Chopines, Italy © V&A Museum

Wishing to escape the unsettling tension of beauty and dark exhibitionism, I make my way up the stairs to the second part of the exhibition only to receive a shock of clinical whiteness. Here, decadence and luxury are stripped to the bones and presented as products of calculation. The design and production process behind the exhibited masterpieces is portrayed as an ongoing project aimed at enticing consumers all over the world. This part is not about beauty or fashion, it is about money.

Status, transformation and seduction maybe advertised themes of ‘Shoes: Pain and Pleasure, but the exhibition also explores themes  of control and obsession. A provocative statement by the V&A, the exhibition argues that the appeal of a pair of expensive shoes is found in our craving for power. Contained in the elaborate footwear on display is the threatening control they bring the buyer. Unable to move freely, or even left crawling on the floor, the wearer is forced to surrender his or her body to the shoe. At the V&A, fashion in its most extreme form is on the verge of abandoning its original purpose as an expression of the individual. Instead, the exhibition suggests that fashion is about to ask for a surrender of your identity.

Vogue shoot, © Estate of Helmut Newton / Maconochie Photography
High and Mighty shoot, American Vogue © Estate of Helmut Newton / Maconochie Photography

If you are not afraid to challenge your idea of beauty, visit the surprisingly provocative ‘Shoes: Pain and Pleasure’ before it closes in a few weeks and experience the tension of luxury and control for yourself. Just make sure to leave the children in front of Cinderella’s glass slipper so that they will still believe in fairy tales.

‘Shoes: Pain and Pleasure’ is on at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London until the 31st of January 2016. Tickets are £12, concessions are available. You can take a sneak preview of the exhibition at The V&A Museum’s  interactive timeline.


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