OBSESSED: How Shoes Became Objects Of Desire
Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto
October 19, 2023 – March 31, 2024
OBSESSED: How Shoes Became Objects of Desire will guide you through the story of how we have become a society obsessed with shoes. This exhibition features highly coveted shoes in our collection that represent how industrialization drove shoe consumption transforming footwear designers into celebrities and shoes into high-value collectibles.
Boosting production: Before industrialization, an experienced shoemaker in the West made roughly two pairs of shoes or one pair of boots per day. In the 19th century, new techniques and innovations sped up production and significantly boosted output. As an increasing range of footwear became available, overall consumption grew, paving the way for shoes to become objects of obsession. Early 19th-century “straights,” for example, did not differentiate between “lefts” or “rights.” Because straights required only one last per shoe size, making them cheaper and faster to produce. This pair of women’s straights was made for export to England by the Paris-based maker, Melnotte. More reasons to buy: As industrialization progressed, new inventions, new materials, and new ideas enticed consumers with an expanding range of things to buy. One of the most exciting innovations of the 19th century was the creation of synthetic colours, especially aniline dyes made using coal tar extract. These brilliant purple shoes reflect the craze for that colour that emerged after 18-year-old chemist William Henry Perkins accidentally made synthetic purple while trying to find a new treatment for malaria.
Speciality items: In addition to creating shoes for new activities, many late 19th-century manufacturers began to offer speciality items to make footwear more comfortable. Carriage boots were worn as overshoes and were designed to keep wearers warm in unheated carriages. Most examples have quilted lining and fur trim but this pair by François Pinet features ostentatious ostrich feathers to trap the heat. Shoe-themed: As industrialization increased, shoe manufacturers tried to differentiate themselves through illustrated advertisements, trade cards, and small functional items such as button hooks and shoe horns. This card is typical of the shoe-themed items that were becoming popular at the end of the 19th century.
Shoe consciousness: In 1926, the New York Times reported that the shoe industry was enjoying the awakening of “shoe consciousness.” Hemlines in women’s fashion were rising, and shoes were increasingly a focus. Shoe designers began to be celebrated as creative geniuses, and the exclusive shoes they made were considered worthy of collecting. This red and gold heel was designed by André Perugia. A shoe for every hour: By the turn of the 20th century, fashionable or ‘well-heeled’ men and women required many different footwear styles. For those who could afford the luxury of travel, a Louis Vuitton shoe trunk was one way of travelling in style. This trunk features discreet compartments for thirty pairs of shoes. Steel heels: The very high, thin stiletto was invented in the early years of the 1950s, and it went on to become the icon of femininity. Perugia made the first version in 1951. This example was created by Roger Vivier, the long-time shoe designer for Christian Dior.
All consuming: By the mid-20th century, shoes had become “the exclamation point at the end of every fashion statement,” as fashion director Laurie Schechter famously said and novelty found expression in shoe design. These Car Shoes were designed by Beth Levine, one of the most innovative shoe designers of the 20th century. Her wit found expression in almost everything she created. Shoes and the city: In the late 1990s, the television show, Sex and the City both reflected and promoted the growing idea that women were “shoeholics” with an insatiable desire for designer shoes. Manolo Blahniks evoked images of luxury, privilege, and femininity. His creations were worn by international celebrities and were objects of desire for many women. When his shoes became plot points in the hit TV show Sex and the City and its movies, he became a household name. Today, his blue Hangisis are a particular favourite with brides.
Express yourself: By the late 20th and into the 21st century, mass-produced shoes and multinational brands had become central to expressions of both individual and group identities. The fashion for cowboy boots in the early 1980s reflected a problematic nostalgia. This pair of boots is by Santa Diego Boots. Back in the game: The intertwining of music, basketball, and sneakers began in New York in the 1970s and one of the most important sneakers was the Puma Suede. These 50th-anniversary Suedes were a collaboration with DJ, author, filmmaker, and member of the famous breaking and hip-hop group, the Rock Steady Crew, Bobbito Garcia. Will ever be enough?: Today, over 20 billion pairs of shoes are manufactured annually yet the desire for shoes continues to grow. Much of this appetite is driven by manufactured scarcity. In 2022, artist Tom Sachs dropped, the NikeCraft General Purpose Shoe. The marketing material proclaimed the shoes as “boring,” declaring that, “Your sneakers should not be the most exciting thing about you. They are tools. They do their job so you can do yours.” Yet, like all limited drops, it sold out immediately as a rare collector’s item.