Published  20/07/2015

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain

Exploring themes of transformation, status and seduction, the V&A’s Shoes: Pleasure and Pain is an exploration of power relations, and how the shoe – ostensibly something to wear on one’s foot – can be a tool of empowerment or oppression

The Victoria and Albert Museum, London
13 June 2015 – 31 January 2016


Michel Foucault did not write about shoes, but he did write about prisons. At first glance, there may be no connection between, say, towering, blue Vivienne Westwood platform shoes and a medieval prison. One is very glamorous and need only be worn for short spells down a runway; the other must be lived in, perhaps for ever, or until the prisoner is sent to his or her death by public execution – a platform decidedly shorter than a runway, with no turning back. Prison is, of course, much more extreme than the wearing of restrictive footwear. But as Foucault would surely agree, oppression does not only happen in a prison; it also happens through subtler structures, through punishing patterns of behaviour and ways of thinking. It makes us who we are. “The individual is not a pre-given entity which is seized on by the exercise of power. The individual, with his identity and characteristics, is the product of a relation of power exercised over bodies, multiplicities, movements, desires, forces.”1

The enforcing of a hierarchy happens on many levels: through a society’s penal system, through its language and media, through its educational system – and through its fashions. That fashion often plays with ideas of status and pain is an interesting twist; this exhibition, a story of status symbols and enduring pain, is a treasure trove of artefacts of affliction. These are the tools of discipline, just as torture instruments and buildings and books are. Take the historic Chinese lotus shoes, for instance (exhibited next to some much less elegant Adidas basketball shoes from the 1980s). These beautiful, but tiny, silk shoes were created for feet that had been bound, and thus moulded into what was considered a daintier shape (much like a corset for the waist), in the hope of achieving the feminine ideal of that time.  

That is not to say that wearing difficult shoes always makes a victim of its wearers, as Shoes: Pleasure and Pain is careful to point out. Wearing stilettos may be painful, but people’s bodies adapt, and those who wear high heels a lot will find that their tendons lengthen and that they are not in much pain at all – or none that the beauty of the shoe would not balance out. Ballet dancers, too, who wear pointe shoes, suffer from years of bruised and bleeding toes, but consider it worth it for their art (with the exception, perhaps, of the dancer in the 1948 film The Red Shoes, whose (now lifeless) red ballet shoes are exhibited here, too). Both heel-wearing and ballet can, over time, cause severe back problems and pain, but many wearers of these “extreme” shoes would not regret anything but the unfortunate reality of the human body’s ultimate decay. Pleasure and pain are closely entwined; from the shoes associated with sadomasochism, such as Christian Louboutin’s torturous-looking fetish shoes, to those that merely hint at sexual habits for the sake of provocation (the exhibition is supported by Agent Provocateur, after all), the relationships of shoes to pain and pleasure is as often about sexuality and the way in which power plays there, too.

As well as being a painful pleasure – not empowering, exactly, but worth it anyway, shoes can also give their wearers a sense of power for a number of reasons, some possibly delusional, and others less so. For every person who finds physical submission empowering, there is another who simply likes being a few inches taller, or someone who wants to wear something that looks like a little sculpture. And there is always someone who wants to communicate his or her status or “identity” with a pair of shoes. While people may snigger at these fashion choices, they are no more frivolous than driving flashy cars or buying houses dripping with superfluous turrets, floors or skylights. Certainly there are many, many status symbols on show in Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, taking inspiration from the V&A’s vast costume collection and assuming its audience’s intrigue in celebrities and their props. From sandals decorated in pure gold leaf to white Salvatore Ferragamo pumps worn by Marilyn Monroe, from costume pieces of pop stars Lady Gaga and Kylie Minogue to the heels of Carrie Bradshaw (played by Sarah Jessica Parker) in Sex and the City, the spectacle of status and celebrity is centre stage. Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin, Jimmy Choo and Prada: designers, or brands, litter and glitter in the dimmed and sparkling lights of the exhibition.

It is all here, then: the performances, the power plays, the pleasure and the pain. There is a distinct joy in the way that these odd objects of human interaction have been presented, and there is something surreal about the varying meanings and status that people, over the centuries, have attributed to footwear. The exhibition does a good job of opening the doors into a mad world in which people wear restrictive, painful, damaging shoes for the sake of art or social climbing or attention. Rather than dismiss these behaviours, the show seems to enjoy it – to revel in these bizarre attitudes to shoes that many people have (and if not to shoes, then to something else, such as watches, or cars, or gardens). We are an odd species, that is for sure, and on exploring these many shoes, from many societies and times, that is what overwhelmingly becomes apparent. Shoes: Pleasure and Pain can make anthropologists of us all.

1. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-77 by Michel Foucault, published by Harvester, 1980, pages 73-4.


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