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Shoes: Pleasure and Pain – From the V&A to the North East!

After last year’s amazing coup by The Bowes Museum in getting Yves Saint Laurent’s Style is Eternal retrospective (the only venue in the UK to be chosen by the Pierre Berge Foundation), I wondered what they would do next (he’s a hard act to follow)! I was pleasantly surprised a few months back when I saw on Twitter that the V&A’s Shoes: Pleasure and Pain exhibition would be the next major fashion retrospective (before it travels to the USA and China). The Museum has built strong links with the V&A (my favourite London museum), and having missed this at the V&A I was happy to be getting a second chance to see it. 

I was over the moon to get an invite to the launch last Friday. Last year’s launch event was fantastic, with amazing canapés, Hot Chip playing and the chance to see Mr Berge, Yves Saint Laurent’s partner himself at the event. I spent quite a while trying to decide what to wear (especially on my shoes) and settled on a long black dress and my hot pink ‘Eiffel Tower’ shoes from Zara. 

We arrived in light rain and quickly rushed inside. Like last year, the reception was held in the Picture Gallery on the first floor, which is a wonderful space for an event. The room is packed full of art from the 19th century, including works by Turner and Goya. Following a champagne reception, we heard from Helen Persson, the curator of the exhibition, who explained more about the amount of work involved and how the exhibition is laid out.
My Mum and I decided to wait for a while before hitting the exhibition as a lot of guests had gone downstairs, which meant we were near the front of the queue for the summer buffet! The canapés were delicious, and included mini Yorkshire puddings filled with beef and horseradish, cheese and walnut tarts, prawns in breadcrumbs with chilli sauce, and smoked salmon blinis. Those with a sweet tooth were treated to mini chocolate tarts, macaroons and peach creme brûlée, plus red or white wine. The musical entertainment from Matt Case along with band was avant garde and ambient. 

We decided it was a good time to go and check out the exhibition, so we entered the Fashion and Textile Gallery. I loved the entrance and the voile sheets printed with shoe quotes, not dissimilar to the ones used in the YSL exhibition. Instead of looking at the shoes initially, my eye was drawn to the ceiling which was adorned with thousands of tightly-packed blood red threads, which gave the Gallery a foreboding atmosphere. 

I was impressed at the curation, and the fact that there are 200 pairs of historic and contemporary men’s and women’s shoes in the Gallery, which is by no means large. Around 70 designers are represented, including design legends Manolo Blahnik, Jimmy Choo, Christian Louboutin and Christian Dior. The shoes are exhibited thematically, not chronologically which makes it a lot more interesting, with a cornucopia of different styles in each section.

My Eiffel Tower hot pink Zara heels I wore for the launch
Immediately to the left when you enter the gallery is the Obsession section – which portrays the joy and fascination of collecting/owning/wearing shoes. I know an obsession when I see it – an avid collector has amassed over 1000 pairs of trainers and many of his Adidas collection is exhibited here. You’ll also find a variety of silk and leather slippers and boots from Napoleon III’s consort, Empress Eugenie (part of the museum’s permanent collection).

Around the corner is the Creation section, where you can find out more about how shoes are constructed and the amazing craftsmanship involved. Here there are Manolo Blahnik designs, patterns and equipment explaining how these beautiful shoes are constructed. 

The Status section is really interesting and looks at how footwear has historically symbolised social status. They have in the past signified the social circle the wearer moves in, notably within the French Royal Court and even today the owner of a pair of Louboutins find themselves part of an elite club. The exhibition has a number of wooden shoes such as the Japanese Geta, which is highly elevated and looks impossible to walk on! 

Many shoes are worn to enhance the sex appeal of the wearer – the Seduction themed area explores how fashion has borrowed from subcultures, such as fetishism to push the boundaries. Smaller shoes signify femininity and larger, bulkier shoes have a masculine connotation. I remember seeing Vivienne Westwood’s death-defying blue mock-croc platform shoes at the Vivienne Westwood shoe exhibition in 2011 here, and they feature again (made famous when Naomi Campbell fell in them on the runway). The tiny 3 inch long 19th century Chinese lotus shoes remind us of the excruciating practice of foot binding. 

Finally the Transformation section focuses on how shoes can completely change the way we feel about ourselves, and how clever marketing sells the transformative qualities of shoes. If you buy the same football boots as a top player, then maybe you’ll be able to recreate the skills. If you have the same shoes as a celebrity, then maybe you’ll feel like them. Here you’ll find the sparkling glass slipper worn by Lily James in 2015’s Cinderella, as well as the red ballet shoes worn by Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes. 

My favourites were the Salvatore Ferragamo platform heels and the Roger Vivier for Christian Dior jewel encrusted heels – I’m a sucker for colour and embellishment! Don’t forget to visit the gift shop where you can get the beautiful V&A official exhibition hardback book (£25), limited edition posters and a variety of other fashionable merchandise. 


I left wondering if I could have actually walked in many of the shoes that were featured, and wished I could have been able to try some out for size! Anyone wondering how people can have a shoe obsession will have a much better understanding of it by going to the exhibition. I certainly had a much better understanding of my own affliction after seeing it! 

Catch the exhibition until October 11th – buy your tickets here

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