Ten Shoes that Changed the World

Gold Sandal (About 30 BC-AD 300)

Shoes have always been powerful status symbols, even in antiquity – as this delicate gilded papyrus sandal from Roman Egypt reminds us. Embellished with nearly pure gold leaf, it is a wonderfully slender and refined object – but it bears little relation to the actual physical shape of the average human foot. As a result, this elfin piece of footwear belongs at the beginning of a long tradition of shoes distorting our feet for one reason or another. Often, as well as pleasure, high-end shoes can cause their wearers extravagant pain. (Credit: V&A)

Gold Mojari (1790-1820)

This sumptuous pair of men’s “mojari” (mules), which were most likely made in Hyderabad in India, makes the gilded sandals from ancient Egypt look positively ordinary. The leather uppers have been entirely covered with gold embroidery, while the throats are decorated with gold designs embellished with precious gems including diamonds, emeralds and rubies. The quality of the construction is so high that they may once have belonged to the Nizam of Hyderabad – though it also appears that they were never worn. Whoever commissioned them wanted his feet to project an unambiguous statement about his seemingly limitless wealth and power. (Credit: Bata Shoe Museum)

Red Ballet Shoes (1948)

As well as attributes of power, shoes can also be objects of fantasy. Historically, they have played an important role in folk and fairy tales: when Cinderella’s foot fits the glass slipper, for instance, she is elevated from housemaid to princess. A version of the Cinderella story – involving the ruler of Egypt, a Greek slave girl and a “slipper test” – can be traced back to the 1st Century BC. These red ballet pumps, made out of silk satin and leather, were produced for Moira Shearer when she starred in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 film The Red Shoes, which was loosely based on a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. (Credit: V&A)

Poulaine (1375-1400)

During the Middle Ages, European fashionistas didn’t bother with high heels. Instead, they were obsessed with narrow shoes boasting long and unnaturally pointed toes, like this example made out of practical leather. Since courtiers were more likely to wear impractical versions made using velvets and satins, it probably belonged to someone middle-class. A craze for shoes like this, which to modern eyes look like precursors of the winkle-picker, swept the continent in the late 14th Century, when they acquired various names, including “crackows” (from Krakow) and “poulaines” (French for “Polish”). In order to keep their shape, the points were stuffed with moss. They were then curled upwards, to facilitate walking. Still, poulaines were hardly known for providing comfort: medieval wearers would have complained of bunions and hammer-toes. (Credit: Museum of London)

Bath Clogs (19th Century)

Beginning in the 16th Century, men and women visiting the hammam, or communal bathhouse, in the Ottoman Empire commonly wore bath clogs – or “qabâqib” in Arabic. A trip to the hammam was part of everyday life, and originally bath clogs had a practical function: they were designed to raise the bather above the hot, dirty, slippery floor. In time, though, practicality was sacrificed on the altar of fashion – as attested by this improbably tall pair of wooden qabâqib used in 19th Century Egypt. Lavishly decorated with shell and metal inlay, they are 28.5cm (11.22in) high, making them the tallest shoes in the V&A’s new exhibition, Shoes: Pleasure and Pain. They would have ensured that their affluent owner could elevate herself above her fellow bathers. (Credit: V&A)

Super Elevated Gillie Shoes (1993)

While Ottoman bath clogs suggest that using shoes to gain height is nothing new, one pair of high heels is more infamous than any other: British designer Vivienne Westwood’s leather-and-silk blue “mock-croc” Super Elevated Gillie platforms, with their 21cm-high heels. In 1993, the supermodel Naomi Campbell was wearing them on the catwalk during Westwood’s show in Paris Fashion Week, when they proved to be so lofty that they caused her to fall. Without warning, one of the shoes suddenly keeled over, sending Campbell tumbling to the floor of the catwalk. It was an iconic moment in fashion history – and a reminder of the extreme lengths to which some women will go in pursuit of appearing fashionable. (Credit: V&A)

Brogued Oxfords (1989)

As any Sex and the City fan will know, haute-couture shoes by the likes of Manolo Blahnik can be exorbitantly expensive. So can handmade shoes for men: even a relatively simple pair of bespoke Oxfords could cost more than £3,000. This pair of brogues was made by traditional British shirt and shoemaker New & Lingwood, using Russian calf leather salvaged from the wreck of a Danish ship sunk in Plymouth Sound off the coast of Cornwall in 1786. Even though the leather was hundreds of years old, it could still be used because it had been wrapped in oilskins. Constructing a pair of luxury shoes like this can be exceptionally complicated, involving more than 200 specialist steps. (Credit: V&A)

Furry Ankle Boots (1943)

Sometimes it is possible to achieve a luxurious high-fashion look with a make-do approach. These ankle boots were commissioned during World War Two by a well-to-do Londoner who took a mink stole and two coats – one made of red leather, the other from ocelot fur – to her local shoemaker in Kensington, and asked him to turn them into a new pair of shoes. The eye-catching results stood out in a period of wartime rationing. “They are a bit too flashy, a bit too high,” says Helen Persson, who has curated Shoes: Pleasure and Pain. “But I think that’s the most wonderful story: that in the middle of war it was still important to have something beautiful and new – so she came up with the idea of sacrificing her clothes. If I could take away any pair of shoes in the exhibition, it would be these.” (Credit: V&A)

Pair of Geta (1880-1900)

Shoes are an essential weapon in the armoury of seduction and desire. The prostitute in Manet’s scandalous oil painting Olympia (1863), for instance, is naked except for a black ribbon around her neck and one high-heeled mule on her left foot (the other mule has already provocatively slipped off). In feudal Japan, high-status courtesans called “oiran” wore traditional “geta” like this vertiginous velvet-and-lacquer pair, more than 20cm (7.9in) high, which resembles a hybrid between clogs, flip-flops and a skyscraper. The idea was that, while wearing them, prostitutes would be forced to adopt a slow, shuffling gait – alternately dragging their feet in a half-circle – so that their beauty could be scrutinised more easily by men. (Credit: V&A)

Imelda Marcos’s Beltrami Sandals (1987-92)

No exhibition about footwear could fail to mention Imelda Marcos, the widow of former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, who is a notorious shopaholic with a penchant for shoes. Born in 1929, over the course of her life she supposedly amassed a collection of some 3,000 pairs of shoes – including these sling-back high-heel sandals, decorated with black embroidery and rhinestones, which were made by the Italian designer Beltrami. Marcos signed the upper lining of each sandal in the pair, which now belongs to Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum. Today Marcos embodies the obsession that shoes still engender in many people, including those passionate collectors who acquire footwear never to be worn, but only to be marvelled at. (Credit: V&A)

Original post can be found in BBC.