If you think about it, a shoe museum is a brilliant idea for people who are addicted to shopping. You can go ooh and aah over mules and heels alike, but nothing’s for sale and the most you can leave with is a cute shoe-shaped magnet from the gift shop. But there’s much more to the Bata Shoe Museum than just lusting over Louboutins. The museum is an extended, hypervisual essay about why we buy shoes, why we wear them, and why we let some of them totally ruin our feet. The current featured exhibit particularly addresses the last issue – it’s an entire collection of chopines, Italian shoes that were worn by noble women. The shoes were essentially high, teetering platforms with ornate decorations, but they were intended as “support garments” and kept carefully hidden under dresses. It’s weird to think of painful-looking shoes being lumped in the same category as shapewear, but the idea of women wearing shoes to make them appear taller and thinner certainly hasn’t disappeared.
In the permanent collection, there are examples of footwear throughout the ages and some special pairs of shoes donated by famous people like Elton John, Mike Myers, Roger Federer, and – my personal favorite – Geri “Ginger Spice” Halliwell’s Union Jack platforms. I also loved (I almost wrote “got a kick out of,” but that seems too foot-y a metaphor) an exhibit about socks. In particular, there was a section about stockings, complete with a pair of Queen Victoria’s pink stockings with “V”s embroidered on them. “Today,” the exhibit noted, “most fashionable women do not wear stockings.” (Note: I was wearing stockings. I’m pretty aware they’re not cool, but I’m a Southern girl and old habits die hard.) Another cool thing I learned: we have Diana Vreeland to thank for Manolos. Blahnik tried couture, but Vreeland thought he was a better fit for shoes.
I spoke to Elizabeth Semmelhack, the curator of the Bata Shoe Museum, about what must clearly be one of the best jobs ever. Semmelhack got her start as an art historian, and she was interested in “aspects of art made for immediate consumption” and things that were mass-produced. Shoes, which are sold almost as soon as they’re made, are an example of an instant form of art that reflects what is going on in a culture at any given time. As for her own daily footwear? “The longer I’m here, the more varied my shoe collection is!” she laughs. However, Semmelhack makes an important distinction between the kinds of shoes she likes to wear and the kind she likes to try on. “I’d like to try on the Alexander McQueen armadillo shoes,” she says, but admits that’s as far as she’d go with them. One past popular exhibit at Bata was “Every Step a Lotus,” about the history of Chinese foot-binding.
Also, I’m dying to know about the almost 13,000 pairs of shoes they have in storage. National tour, anyone?
Semmelhack lets me down gently, reminding me that “one of our mandates is to preserve artifacts.” In other words, some of them need time to rest. Shoes get cycled through the exhibit – right now, pairs from Marilyn Monroe, Pablo Picasso, Buddy Holly, Robert Redford, and Elvis. (The shoes are not blue suede. I asked.) are in storage awaiting their next turn out on stage. Either way, there’s so much great stuff on display that there’s no point focusing on what might might be in storage.