While shoes are sometimes overlooked in the history of fashion, they are a staple in our wardrobe that metaphorically and literally carry us through life.
Enters FITs new exhibition, “Shoes: Anatomy, Identity, Magic,” which explores our physical, social and psychological relationship with footwear. From September 1 to December 31, visitors can see selected works curated by the museum’s director, Dr. Valerie Steeleand Curator of Costume and Accessories Colleen Hill, with over 300 pairs of shoes narrowed down from the museum’s 5,000.
“Frequent [past exhibitions] make shoes by designers, or a retrospective by a designer, or a show focused on one type of shoe,” says Steele. “We wanted an approach that was a little different.”
Through the perspectives of anatomy, identity and magic, one is able to gain a holistic understanding of Western women’s dress beginning in the 18th century from the exhibition. Staged in the museum’s basement gallery, it opens with infant shoes, telling the story of how our lives begin with customized footwear. A looping video of scenes from various movies, such as “Sex and the City“and”The Devil Wears Prada,” plays in the background, highlighting moments where footwear leaves an indelible mark on popular culture.
“We really wanted people to think for themselves; we kept our texts to a minimum. For the most part, it’s left to the viewer to think about what their choice of footwear says about them,” says Hill.
The first section, entitled “Anatomy”, explores how shoes affect the physiology of our feet and affect the way we move. The irony is that many shoes are not actually designed to fit us. Take e.g. Noritaka Tatehana‘s 18-inch “point shoe” (same model donated by Lady Gaga in her video, “Marry the Night”): These surreal, elongated platforms are neither conducive to walking nor to ease movement. A staggering 5-inch Walter Steiger heel seems equally intimidating to wear, yet is ergonomically correct because the tip of the heel lands just below the center of the heel bone. Other highlights from the anatomy section include a Pierre Cardin molded leather shoe with toe-shaped edges and zebra print Manolo Blahnik pump that snugly exposes the wearer’s toes. The goal is to make viewers carefully observe these objects, reflect on whether or not they would wear the shoes, and examine their own physical relationships with footwear.
The second section, “Identity,” revolves around our tendencies to associate shoes with different types of people. The curators ask the question: “Are you a shoe?”
“Along with clothing in general, shoes have become more of a matter of personal choice,” says Steele, noting that shoes are now available in a wide range of price points. “In the past it was whether you could even afford shoes or not, so it was much more prescribed. Now there is a choice.” (ONE Birkenstock tells a very different story than, for example, a high heel.)
With greater choice comes greater distinction in styles, each conveying a different message of identity. One wall is dedicated exclusively to designer shoes, allowing users to identify with the elite world of high fashion. We see how some look to the past for inspiration; Azzedine Alaïa‘s patent leather boots, for example, are a modernized version of a more practical 20th-century style that reflects how our fashion identities are closely tied to past iterations.
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That includes sneakerheads. For hype beasts out there, the exhibit features quite a few coveted sneakers, including a pair Nike “Air Jordan I” basketball sneakers and a Bathing monkey “Bapesta” sneaker from 2002.
The final section, “Magic”, is based on our belief that the right pair of shoes can equip you with enhanced skills or powers. A pair of Nike Air Jordans connotes athletic ability, while a pair of Ancient Greek sandals with wings made in 2022 reference mythology and evokes the magical abilities of flight.
Shoes are also physical manifestations of our fascination with adventure. We see a pair of Andreia Chave’s glass-and-3D-printed nylon wedges as a nod to the story of Cinderella, as well as a decent pair of red Moroccan leather flats that reference Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes.”. “
Magic plays an equally large factor in our shopping experience. Per Steele’s creative vision, the center of the main exhibition is designed as a shoe store. A pair of glamorous heels sit within candy box-like displays, tempting the viewer to try them on.
“From the beginning, I wanted to do something with a shoe store in the middle of the show… this power and attraction of shoes and buying shoes,” says Steele. The store reveals how shoes are often objects of desire: we imagine our lives could change if we just find the right pair of shoes, imbuing the shopping experience with a certain amount of magic.
Smart curatorial choices are made throughout the exhibition. At times there are very obvious pairings, such as a men’s and women’s version of Christian Louboutin Dandy Love slippers. Other times, interesting juxtapositions make for historically rich, visually exquisite comparisons, like Louboutin “fetish ballerina” pumps paired with Alberto Guardiani “lipstick” heels, showing how high heels consistently prioritize vanity over practicality.
“Shoes: Anatomy, Identity, Magic” is revelatory in many ways. We are reminded that shoes are indispensable in our daily lives, yet they are so often overlooked. In fact, they have physical, social and psychological significance. A visit to the exhibition will equip you with not only a better understanding of the cultural zeitgeist of a given decade, but also a better understanding of one’s sartorial choices.
“Shoes: Anatomy, Identity, Magic” at the Museum at FIT in New York City runs Sept. 1-Dec. 31.