Christian Louboutin, Manalo Blanak, Roger Vivier and Zaha Hadid - SURPRISE! - your true-dream shoe-closet does indeed exist, and its in a small but ambitious black-box exhibition in Hong Kong’s Pacific Place shopping mall. “SHOES, Pleasure and Pain” presented by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London in partnership with Swire Properties, Hong Kong, makes Hong Kong’s Pacific Place, in the city’s swanky Admiralty District, the final location of the its year-long tour throughout retail locations in Asia. The exhibition, originally displayed in London at the V&A Museum (2015), first toured to The Bowes Museum in Durham (2016) then crossed the Atlantic to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts (2016) and the SCAD Museum of Fashion in Atlanta, Georgia (2017). In its Asia tour, it has likewise visited a number of cities including Shanghai, Chengdu, Guangzhou, and Beijing. The V&A has no plans on showing this exhibition of 140 specimens of significant footwear again anytime in the future.
The exhibition is articulated in five themed sections—Transformation, Status, Creation, Seduction, Obsession—and arranged between two separate galleries, both placed inside the Garden Court of Pacific Place, Hong Kong’s premier luxury shopping establishment. The first gallery features shoes in a purple interior with dim light. Crowded like the viewers in the small exhibition space nested amidst the vast marble-lined halls of the mall, the shoes have themed windows with different labels. With labels that require a pocket flashlight equipped with a magnifying lens, the exhibition is clearly not intended to satisfy our desire for information but to titillate and seduce. Even the schematic illustrations of the different shoes emphasizing voluptuous contour are sexy. The placards satiate the need for digestibility among everyday mall walkers, fashionistas and sneaker-heads but this is an exhibition that does not shy away from the shoe’s status as the quintessential festish. The decorum of visitors is zealous as ardent devotees of the shoe enter fervently though nonetheless confused, wondering if they should follow the norms of shopping mall behavior or museum etiquette.
In China’s new economic conditions, it is important for every brand that tries to enter the market to make the right impression: finding the right consumer to court can make or break the establishment of brand value. Dilution and saturation of the V&A museum brand is no different and this is no doubt part of what is at play with this seemingly mundane exhibition of fantastic shoes. In aligning with luxury commerce, the museum is elevating its brand awareness to the level of upscale stores in Asia. The question remains if the value of the museum’s brand is dulled when embedded in an environment of capital goals like a shopping mall, its material-driven host.
On the outside of the first box-arcade, a large screen with interviews of famous shoe idols, and profiles of the most recent collections of designers featured in the exhibition, betrays a commercial wrapping that aims to use the show to encourage museum viewers to become buyers. A graphic on the floor guides the viewer from one gallery to the other, past brick-and-mortars smacking their lips at the potential shoe sales this exhibition should ensure. Seeing Salvador Ferragamo’s 2018 collection displayed outside of the gallery, The walk from gallery-to-gallery is a dirge for the wallet.
Mirror boxes give multiple perspectives of a gold-and pink styled display. Orange and blue themed line-based displays showcase ostentatious Vivienne Westwood boots worn by Naomi Campbell when she stumbled on the catwalk in 1993. Masterpieces of design, many of the shoes on display are impeccable examples of the boundaries pushed in contemporary design, but many are also artifacts of Internet meme culture.
These magical shoes have the power to send our steps into other worlds. The vamp of the show introduces the viewer to the section of the exhibition titled ‘Transformation.’ In 1697, Charles Perrualt wrote the fairy-tale version of Cinderella, adding the all important character of the glass slipper. Disney’s version made in 1950, crystalized the slipper as the formidable symbol of Cinderella and the power the right shoes have to change lives. Only the true Princess will fit the slipper and trigger the metamorphosis from rags to riches. Perpetuating the princess complex, a ‘Cinderella Slipper’ made for Lily James shines. Worn in the 2015 feature film Cinderella and designed by Swarovski, the diaphanous pair is displayed on a red velvet pillow.
A pair of Adidas football athletics worn by David Beckham hold court among celebrity shoes that include two pairs worn by singer and actress Kylie Minogue and a pair of knee-high black leather boots with rainbow rhinestone platforms worn by Elton John. For centuries, shoes have been a symbols of status and wealth. This is explored with shoe molds (known in the industry as ‘lasts’) made to craft shoes especially for the slender feet of Princess Diana. There are even shoes with velvet soles created for women so high class they never touched the ground, traveling from carpet to carriage then back to carpet again.
The representation of historical shoes is impressive. A long-toed moss-filled, black shoe, believed to date from the 1370s, is the most antediluvian pair in the show. A variety of sizes and stages of antique Chinese shoes worn by women whose feet were bound for social reasons and fetish appeal, are on display as well. Some of the latter are so small they can fit in the palm of your hand as women started the painful (and malodourous) process of binding feet from an early age. All this, to secure a quality marriage partner. A tradition started in the Song Dynasty (960- 1279), originally made illegal in 1911, women modified their feet with help of older generations. With chance women could jump classes with marriage. Matches made by mother-in-laws, were easier for Chinese women with small beautiful feet believed to show she would be a subservient wife who would never complain. Binding continued after being made illegal with true trickle-down effects in rural lower income strata, until 1949, when bindings were effectively removed with force during the Chinese revolution. The last generations of women who had their feet bound are now in their 80s and 90s. Some of the women whose feet would have fit the shoes on display are portrayed photographer and social historian Jo Farrell’s photography project Living History: Bound Feet Women of China (2015).
Conception of design in the footwear process is paramount. Whether a pret-a-porter 52-week release or a luxury fashionhouse with four collections a year, designers continue to push the boundaries of intention and material. Imagination is key, even with a capitalist end goal. Pouring her whole ‘sole’ in it, recently deceased starchitect Zaha Hadid designed a pair titled Nova (2013). The shifting cantilever form supports a 16 centimeter heel; rotation-molding made a shoe of rubber, in which all parts of the shoe are completely interconnected. This chrome star pair is in the creation section of the exhibit. The innovation here surpasses that of any other pair in the show.
Shoes have the capability to push boundaries and represent many different parts of society. The Seduction section is where shoes have the ‘leg up’ on other garments worn on the body. The pleasure and pain in wearing certain shoes means empowerment through discomfort. In this section the shoe as an object of sexual fixation can is seen in a pair designed by Christian Louboutin in collaboration with cult film director David Lynch. Titled Sous Le Pied (2007), the shoe has a heel placed at an angle impossible to walk in, making the wearer unable to saunter. Reduced to a crawl, the wearer exposes the folds of skin and creases between toes at the bottom of her feet through the open bottom of her shoes.
Nearby heeled slides with feather furbelows are displayed next to gigantic black-gloss Japanese thong-sandal platforms worn by prostitutes. Like Sous Le Pied these lack their true allure without the live performance of the body wearing them. Movement and the female figure makes these shoes come alive. The curatorial team attempted to reinsert the lost body with video of the Japanese shoes on their wearers playing in the center of the gallery, just a stretch away from the objects themselves. These shoes displayed in the ‘Seduction’ section appear situated in a chamber with ethnographic lighting and suggestive red velvet space submits to the apparent coloration of shoes and sex.
Infatuation with shoes can cause a compulsion for sole perfection. The famous shoe collector Lionel Bussey (1914-1969) acquired over 600 pairs of shoes over the course of his lifetime. A small part of his collection of mostly leather shoes is featured in the ‘Obsession’ part of the exhibition. Each pair collected by Bussey represented the most trend-driven style at the time they were made. Bussey’s collection even showcases rationing during the war years in the 1940s and its effect on shoes. All the shoes were brand-new, never-worn, many still in original boxes with the receipts evidencing when and how they were acquired.
Emphasising extremes in fashion, SHOES, Pleasure and Pain, takes the shoe to new heights. Laced with remarkable examples of extraordinary footwear spanning time, social status and geography, the exhibition displays its the subjects with dignity in a commercial space, never dulling the shine of these brilliant shoes rather basking in their afterglow.
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