More than 350 pairs of shoes, from Noël Coward’s monogrammed slippers to white Toffeln clogs worn by a frontline health worker, are to go on show as part of the long-delayed Shoephoria exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Bath.
The show, which opens next week, also features Kanye West-designed Yeezy trainers, a pair of cream calico trousers that morph into boots by Gareth Pugh, and 36 pairs of Manolo Blahniks. It had been due to open last year, but was postponed because of the pandemic.
The curator, Rosemary Harden, said: “We had been due to open 10 days before lockdown last spring so the timing wasn’t ideal.”
When it became clear the museum would not reopen imminently, a small team of curators used the time to expand the collection from 100 pairs to 350.
Harden said they “decided to use the time to double the collection, and insert shoes into the existing collection, swapping out [other accessories], mostly fans. We call the shoes ‘interventions’.”
Further cabinets were erected, a “wearer’s walkway” gallery of local shoe fans was introduced and 100 pairs of shoes were parachuted into the museum’s existing show, A History of Fashion in 100 Objects, providing what Harden calls “pockets of context”.
Now a pair of white Clarks boots inspired by André Courrèges sits alongside Yves Saint Laurent’s 1965 cream and navy “Mondrian” dress suits. Beneath an 1817 cream Madras lace frock, silk slippers straight from the pages of Persuasion. Instead of splitting exhibitions, they merged them.
The revised exhibition is divided into three parts and covers three centuries. The first and third are chronological. Beginning with the oldest shoes in the collection – red velvet mules with gold embroidery from the 1690s – it ends with Jane Austen’s England, showing the shift from heels to “slippers”, and why in the 19th century silhouette trumped flattery. Heels worked with a wide skirt, flats with a long silhouette that pools at the heel. Harden said: “In some ways the addition of the shoes over lockdown has been a happy accident. It shows us, visitors and curators, new ways to look at the clothes.”
The third and final part is a whizz through the remaining decades. In the roaring 20s, there was mottled gold leather shoes with a diamanté buckles. The leap from postwar austerity to 50s modernity is shown through wooden-sole lace-ups placed alongside a physics-defying pair of gold and plastic heelless shoes from 1949. The 60s and 70s are represented by space-age booties and rainbow platforms. In timely fashion, the exhibition ends with sneakers.
The middle part has a broadly thematic approach. Walking, fetish and protest are among 10 themes divided into glass cabinets, each one piled high with boxes to resemble a shop window. Borrowing from the Devil Wears Prada approach to cerulean blue, the idea is to show why we wear what we wear. So the remnants of Roman soles sit beside hot pink Balenciaga “sole” sandals from 2010. A pair of thigh-length waders worn by local trout fishers sit beside brown fishnet fashion boots by Herbert Levine.
Given the situation, Harden said it was difficult to borrow shoes, and there are some obvious holes – namely no Birkenstocks and no McQueen Armadillo shoes. An impressive collection of Manolo Blahniks – Blahnik is a Bath resident – in two separate cabinets almost turn the exhibition into a boutique, but heels belonging to Ginger Rogers and Margot Fonteyn are likely to be the main draw.
After periods of crises, clothing can indicate a new era. See the flapper heels of the 1920s or logo-mania that followed the 2008 financial crash. Those curious about how the pandemic has shaped our wardrobes – and whether lockdown retired the heel – will not find answers here. As the exhibition name suggests, Shoephoria is a celebration not an obituary.