What, I wondered, do you wear on your feet to the press view of the V&A's new exhibition, "Shoes: Pleasure and Pain"? The answer, it turns out, is something flat and comfortable: there were people in trainers, sandals, loafers, brogues, gentlemen's slippers and (me) Chelsea boots. I spotted only two pairs of heels in the whole, crowded gallery. Behind the glass of the vitrines, though, it was a different story: vertiginous heels abounded (for both men and women), some feathered or jewelled or sequinned, from near and far, from the distant past to the present.
The feet of the viewers—who had probably, like me, arrived on public transport—provided an unspoken commentary on the exhibition itself: many shoes are deliberately, gloriously, extravagantly, boastfully impractical. And that, the captions make clear, is the point of them. Shoes have long been indicators of status. The less practical they are, the more obviously they declare the wearer as a member of the privileged and leisured classes, far above the dirt and toil of manual labour. And journalism.
There are 250-plus pairs of shoes in this exhibition (seeing them in pairs, rather than singly, helps to stop it looking like an expensive, time-travelling shoe shop). They come from 20 different countries, 70 different designers and span 2,000 years, including one pair from Egypt in 30BC. Together they are a feast for the eyes, and there's food for thought, too: footwear is embedded in our collective psyche through myths and fairy tales—children long for an empowering pair of Seven League Boots, and versions of the Cinderella story can be found all over the globe.
This is a show of two halves. Downstairs, in a velvet-curtained, low-lit, boudoir-ish setting, it is divided into three themes: transformation, status and seduction. Shoes are displayed in tiers on jewel-coloured cubes or cylinders or on stepped, glass shelves. It all looks luscious, although sometimes the captions are too distant to be easily read in the gloaming. The headline-grabbers are here: shoes worn by Queen Victoria, Lady Gaga and Marilyn Monroe; shoes by all the name-check designers; David Beckham's football boots; the ballet shoes designed for Moira Shearer in the 1948 film "The Red Shoes"; the Swarovski crystal slipper made for Lily James in the recent film "Cinderella" (which looks slippery only in the sense that it resembles an ice sculpture). Shoes, it seems, have become celebrities in their own right. Anyone wanting to take photographs in the exhibition had to sign a form beforehand, because 19 pairs of shoes have a "no close-ups" clause. Do they also have their own agents, and Winnebagos in which they insist on having only white flowers?
The upstairs part of the exhibition is a light, clinical space, which deals with more down-to-earth matters: how shoes are constructed and made (the invention of the steel heel spike in the 1950s has a lot to answer for), and how designers work and get their inspiration. There is a video of interviews in which Manolo Blahnik is asked whether he compiles a mood board for his designs: "A mood board? Are you crazy? You just know what you want and you do it!" he flounces. It also touches on shoes as commodities, with samples from several private collections: one person has amassed over 300 pairs of Adidas trainers, one collects only from the high street and another only from big-name designers; there is even one pair designed by Beltrami and worn by Imelda Marcos, who was keen to point out that she didn't have 3,000 pairs of shoes, just 1,060.
So far, so good. But one thing is conspicuous by its absence in this enjoyable show. Well, two actually: feet. I was expecting an exhibition subtitled "Pleasure and Pain" to unpack the question of suffering a bit more—why shoes are painful, perhaps; what long-term damage they do to our feet; maybe even (and I'm aware this is starting to sound weird) some X-rays of tortured bones. Having collaborated on the Intelligent Life boot with Tracey Neuls—who declares she "always starts with the foot" when designing her shoes—I have become extremely conscious of how unusual this obvious-sounding approach is in reality. Here, the fact that shoes affect the way you move is treated in visual terms—they make you shuffle, take tiny steps, arch your back, and so on. The nearest the exhibition comes to asking awkward questions of shoes—unwrapping the foot-binding, so to speak—is in this caption: "Elite shoes...have usually ignored the anatomy of human feet." Disappointingly, the show seems to have followed suit. Perhaps "Shoes: Meaning and Making" would have been a more accurate, if less arresting, title.
Shoes: Pleasure and Pain V&A, London, June 13th to January 31st 2016