If you own more than two pairs of shoes, thank the sewing machine. In the early 19th century, few people did: All footwear was made by hand and an experienced shoemaker might produce two pairs a day. The introduction of new technology greatly sped up production and today more than 20 billion pairs are made annually – or, if they were to be distributed evenly, 2½ new pairs of shoes for every person on the planet every year.
A new exhibition at the Bata Shoe Museum investigates how we became obsessed with our shoes. Why do we own so many? Part of the answer is simply: because we can. Industrialization made shoes ubiquitous, an affordable luxury.
This small show, entitled Obsessed: How Shoes Became Objects of Desire and curated by the museum’s director Elizabeth Semmelhack, provides something of a Shoe History 101 and a nice introduction to the Bata collection. It charts the rise of shoe consumption by using rare and exquisite examples from the collection, including fantastically embroidered men’s slippers of the 19th century and a 2022 pair of Manolo Blahniks.
The show begins with a few early 19th-century handmade examples, such as a pair of straights, slipper-like shoes that were so called because there was no difference between the left and right and thus were faster to make. There’s also a case of shoemaker’s tools, including the boar bristles that would have been used as a needle to accomplish the trickiest part of shoemaking: attaching the upper to the sole. One solution was pegging rather than sewing, and the show also includes a pair of slippers miraculously held together with tiny carved wooden pegs.
Sewing machines could not only attach upper to sole in a flash, they could add decorative embroidery in a fraction of the time. From 1875, the show includes a pair of blue leather baby shoes with fancy white stitching that came in a little gift box: By this time, another pair of shoes could be a small indulgence rather than a hard-earned necessity.
Shoemakers began providing specialty shoes for all sorts of different activities, including rubber-soled “sneakers” for playing tennis and even two-toned leather “spectators” for watching sports, both included here. Heels, which had fallen out of fashion in the early 19th century, reappeared.
And, as women’s skirts rose above their ankles in the 20th century, shoes became increasingly visible, an important fashion accessory and a relatively affordable one – which is perhaps why shoe design became so creative during the 1930s. The Depression era invented the wedge heel and the peep toe. There are several striking examples here, including an exotic gold-and-black pair of open-backed evening shoes with upturned toes and heels stacked like the decks of an ocean liner, a copy of Salvatore Ferragamo’s work made in Italy in the late 1930s.
Ferragamo originals were not inexpensive. Top fashion designers had entered the industry around the turn of the century, producing both innovative and luxurious designs. The stiletto, made possible by fashioning a heel out of steel, was invented in the 1950s as women returned to the home from their wartime workplaces and fashion returned to the ultra feminine.
The stiletto is represented here by a flashy pink pair designed in 1956 by Roger Vivier, who was the shoe designer at Christian Dior. Women were still wearing these killer heels four decades later when the television show Sex and the City made a pair of Manolo Blahniks, or Christian Louboutin’s “red-bottoms” with their scarlet soles, the most desirable shoes imaginable.
Recent examples of both designers’ shoes are included here, but the question of how or why a woman wears such crippling footwear is the subject for another day. Not that Semmelhack shies away from the themes of privilege and gender that a study of footwear naturally raises. Presenting one of the 3,000 pairs that belonged to former Philippines first lady Imelda Marcos, the exhibition considers how the notion of being a “shoeaholic” is associated with women.
Meanwhile, the Bata Museum is also showing The Great Divide: Footwear in the Age of Enlightenment, an exhibition where Semmelhack dissects class, race and fashion in the 18th century, when a landowner’s flat, black, buckled shoe indicated he was a man of action rather than a fop.
Semmelhack last did a show on the high heel in 2001 and it’s clearly a rich subject worth returning to: The platform, introduced in the 1970s, is included in Obsessed as an example of how the industry reached out to men, hoping to draw them into the same pattern of shoe consumption as women. The notion that men are as likely or as suitable fashionistas as women, as they were prior to the 19th century, is experiencing something of a revival today. Witness here a few of the limited-edition sneakers, including Pierre Hardy’s Poworamas (2011) inspired by the art of Roy Lichtenstein and 50th anniversary Puma Suedes (2018), that lure men into shoe collecting.
To consider the future of the sneaker, head over to a third show, Future Now, full of innovative technology from self-tying shoes to stability boots for use in virtual reality settings. Some of these designs are highly practical: The VR boots may eventually be adapted for gaming but their initial purpose is for use in emergency simulations, while shoes made of mushroom leather are sustainably produced and can be tossed in the compost. Still, the many outlandish designs, from the sleek to the otherworldly, suggest there will be plenty more shoes to collect in the future.
Obsessed: How Shoes Became Objects of Desire is showing at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto until April, 2024.