Yep, you read that right. Everyone’s favourite Disney princess didn’t actually wear glass slippers. At least, not in every country. While the modern fairytale just wouldn’t be the same without those delicate high-heels, Cinders has sported some very different styles around the globe. In ancient Egypt, Cinderella would have worn gold leather sandals, while in China the ultimate rags-to-riches princess wore silk and cotton booties. Canada’s Cinders even wore embroidered moccasins – not quite what you might expect from an exhibition named Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, the latest must-see fashion exhibition opening on Saturday at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Spanning over 2000 years, 70 designers, 20 countries and a wardrobe-busting 250 pairs of shoes, Shoes: Pleasure and Pain has a story to tell about every style imaginable. Wondering who gave Manolo Blahnik his big break? Thank Carrie Bradshaw. Always asked why there’s something a little seductive about lacing? Because they both reign in and advertise the naked flesh. Suddenly noticed that the nude court shoe was back with a vengeance? Kate Middleton, that’s on you.
The fact that this exhibition is both sponsored by conservative Clarks, who are celebrating 190 years of classic shoe making, and supported by the arousing Agent Provocateur should tell you a little something about the range of styles on offer, some of which had never been seen outside of their countries of origin. Whether you’re a shoe addict or just like pretty things, you need to see this exhibition. So remember Cinderella’s fancy footwear as you book your tickets, and read up on seven other things we learned from Shoes: Pleasure and Pain.
1. Wartime fashion wasn’t always reserved. One client remodeled their old leopard print coats into some seriously scene-stealing boots, with red leather platforms and 10cm heels. Now that’s recycling, especially at the height of WW2 rationing.
2. Christian Louboutin wasn’t the first to give us red soles. That honour goes all the way back to Louis XIV in 1673, who wore red heels and soles to show that he did not dirty his shoes with such manual activities as, you know, walking.
3. Ever wondered why you can’t find comfortable high heels? Because they’re not meant for walking in, duh. The elite have long worn “ornamental footwear with a lack of concern for function”, to show off that those precious heeled feet are carried around via chauffeur and free from the hassles of everyday life.
4. Men’s shoes can actually be more decorative than women’s. Take these ruby, emerald, sapphire and diamond slippers from 18th century India, or the leather, velvet and metal Sultan’s shoes from the 1700s. The curved toes are meant for showing off and lounging around, not day to day living.
5. Think fake Fendi flatforms are a recent thing? Think again. Copycat footwear goes way back to the days of Madame Pompadour’s floral booties in the 1700s (she was still a style icon, even if she was the King’s mistress), right through to 1980s trainer addiction. Now, people paint their own red soles onto high heels to fake Louboutins - this cheap-trick trend isn’t going anywhere.
6. Sex appeal has REALLY changed over time. Today's fetish wear might be all about black leather, but the retro feathered mule has always been seductive. It’s all in the suggestion of them slipping off the foot, apparently. After the first phase of mule-madness in the 18th century (and some somewhat conservative styles), Hollywood superstars re-popularised the boudoir slippers.
7. Great shoes don’t have to be designer. As high-street shoe collector Katie Porter proves, buying and wearing shoes is a thrill no matter where they’re from. Every pair still has a personal story, and a little indulgence is allowed every once in a while (hello, McQueen).
Shoes: Pleasure and Pain is open June 13th 2015 – January 31st 2016 at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.