If, as Mark Twain said, “Clothes makes the man”, then the Peabody Essex Museum’s newest exhibit is full throttle support for a complementary adage: “Shoes make the woman”.
“Shoes: Pleasure and Pain” showcases 300 pairs of shoes by more than 130 designers and artists that range from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the comfortable to the downright punishing. Although men’s shoes are represented with bling and panache, over 70% of the exhibit is devoted to women’s shoes.
With its recent acquisition of 20th– and 21st-century fashion, PEM has the largest shoe collection in the country. Over 100 are included in the exhibit, many of which have never been displayed before.
“We are in the process of building a fashion presence at PEM,” said Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, PEM’s James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes Deputy Director and coordinating curator for the exhibition. “There is a growing appetite for compelling exhibitions about fashion.”
Organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, the PEM show marks its U.S. debut and will run through March 12, 2017.
Curated by themes, the five-section show (Transformation, Status, Seduction, Creation and Obsession) features shoes worn by high profile celebrities such as David Beckham, Elton John, Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana. Among the artists and designers represented are Manolo Blahnik (of “Sex and the City” notoriety), Christian Louboutin (with his signature red soles), Christian Dior, Jimmy Choo and Prada. Combat boots and sneakers share center stage with stilettos and seductive boudoir mules.
It is the pairing of designer and consumer that is at the heart of the exhibit. “Shoes are about the personal creativity of the designer and the person who wears that shoe. It’s a partnership between two people who likely never meet. Creation is about communication,” Hartigan said.
The shoes on display aren’t just meant to protect feet and promote locomotion. They are also projections of the mood, identity and status of the wearer. “Shoes are extensions of ourselves,” she added.
Blahnik’s Mondrian-inspired red and yellow “Tendona” shoes would be conversation-stoppers at any gathering as would Louboutin’s impossibly high-heeled “Anemone” design, with its red satin bursts and feathers. The shoes seem molded to fit a Barbie doll’s nonhuman foot, and in fact, Barbie does have her very own accessory line of three Louboutin designs.
These shoes aren’t meant for the average consumer (even Barbie’s version retails for $35). With starting prices of $700, they are associated with more than female sexuality and power. “High heels have always been worn by rich people of high society,” said Hartigan, noting that the Egyptians first developed platform shoes in 3500 B.C. so the wealthy could be seen as walking high off the ground.
Historians looking for more than the dazzle of sequins and crystals (yes, there is even a Swarovski Cinderella glass slipper) can linger among the lotus shoes made for bound feet, 16th century chopines and men’s shoes with noisy slap-soles that were worn in Europe in the 17th century.
Fashionistas will delight in the chance to see Vivienne Westwood’s dramatically exaggerated lace-up blue platform heels that famously caused model Naomi Campbell to stumble on a Paris runway in 1993. A picture of Campbell good-naturedly laughing after her very public tumble is part of the display.
The exhibit also has a distinctive local flavor, acknowledging New England’s importance as a shoe manufacturing center and featuring selections from the late Boston style maven Marilyn Riseman and noted North Shore collectors Jimmy Raye and Lillian Montalto Bohlen.
Turning momentarily serious, the section “Seduction” shines a spotlight on the often-blurred lines between objectification and celebration of women’s sexuality. Inspired by bondage and 18th century prostitution, mules and high heels have always represented both passion and exploitation.
Perhaps the most extreme example of this is “Fetish”, an unwearable pair of stilettos created by Louboutin in collaboration with film director David Lynch, whose signature style (“Blue Velvet”, “Twin Peaks”) is darkly twisted sensuality. The only way one can wear these shoes is by crawling. A picture of a woman doing just that is part of the exhibit.
Walking through the galleries, it’s evident that while the lion’s share of shoes is designed for women, the designers are predominantly men. Although high heels may empower and literally elevate women, they can do so at a cost of permanent back and foot problems.
Asked whether he has sympathy for women who wear his designer high heels, Louboutin was unambiguous in a 2012 interview with “Grazia” magazine. “High heels are pleasure with pain. If you can’t walk in them, don’t wear them,” he scoffed.
Or, as a shoe designer in ancient Roman times (when high heels were popular with both men and women) might have put it, “caveat emptor”.
Shoes: Pleasure and Pain runs through March 12, 2017 at the Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex St., Salem. For more information, visit pem.org.