As the title – Shoes: Pleasure & Pain – indicates, the V&A’s latest exhibition aims to grab the viewer’s attention. If not through the appeal of footwear itself, then by the suggestion of eroticism that is underlined further by the choice of Helmut Newton’s provocative image ‘High & Mighty’ of 1995 as both catalogue cover and poster. This photograph shows supermodel Nadja Auermann awkwardly scaling steps in shoes that are so vertiginous she needs not just crutches, but two burly male helpers to make it to the summit. This photoshoot has been controversial – since its first publication there has been comment about its use of imagery of disability for a fashion spread. By using this as publicity the museum is therefore courting media attention and aligning the show with sex and fetish as key themes. This may entice visitors, but what of the content and curation itself?
The exhibition is split into two parts – and that difficult central space in the Fashion Court is put to good use. Completely reimagined, the downstairs area is clad in deep purple – velvet drapes and deep pile carpet soften the interior and mute sound. It is a sensory experience to walk through the dimly lit galleries, conscious of the feel of the fabric, even if one may not touch. This is heightened by the contrasting bright red of some of the displays – and gives the effect of a louche boudoir, or peep show. In turn, the themes focused upon explore consumers’ and wearers’ desire for shoes, and span a wide historical and geographical period to underline persistent connections between shoes and sexuality. It is no surprise that risqué lingerie brand Agent Provocateur was part sponsor of the exhibition: its ad campaigns and underwear mirror the sensory overload here.
Climbing the stairs, the mood changes completely, the visitor enters a clinical realm of brightly lit white space, that signals the exhibition’s shift from emotional connections to shoes, to focus on designing and making, before it twists back again to look at obsession, via several avid shoe collectors’ most treasured footwear wardrobes.
This area shows everything from the shoes’ component pieces, to digital 3D designs and intriguing insights into functional, sports shoe design versus heel prototypes for fashion shoes. If downstairs reinforced the idea of shoes as items of lust and myth, then here, one is opened up to the process of creation, with videos showing key designers, including Manolo Blahnik explaining their approach. The fact that Sex and the City raised Blahnik’s name to international notoriety denotes another aspect of shoes’ status in recent years – as a staple media-trope of female desire and excess. And while this exhibition certainly plays to this idea, it makes clear men’s interest in shoes too, in relation to sexuality, but also obsessive collection and fetishisation of another kind – as demonstrated in one man’s collection of box fresh sneakers.
As with many of its fashion shows, entertainment plays a prominent role, and the exhibition is not short of spectacle. However, this is underpinned by a strong foundation of research and a desire to provoke visitors, not just to be dazzled by the array of beautiful objects, but also to think about their creation and cultural meanings.