In Fashion’s Shoes

The Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris is hosting a brilliant exhibition on shoes from all around the world, from the Middle Ages until today.

Footprint stickers gradually converging in the same direction – at the entrance to the MAD (Musée des Arts Décoratifs) in Paris, these stickers are perfect to guide the visitor to the museum’s latest exhibition, dedicated to footwear from all over the world and over the centuries since the Middle Ages. The metaphor implied by these stickers also perfectly sums up the significant diversity of the world’s shoe designs which are all featured in the “Marche et démarche” exhibit – an exhibition paying homage to the cultural history of footwear that is being programmed until 23 February 2020. Nearly 500 pairs of shoes were collected for the event, from the decorative arts collection and archives of several fashion brands such as Bally, Salvatore Ferragamo, Christian Louboutin, and Roger Vivier, as well as from other collections such as the Guimet Museum dedicated to Asian arts or the Quai Branly - Jacques Chirac Museum dedicated to the arts and civilisations of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas.

Hence shoes from all eras and from around the world – from countries such as China, Japan, India, Ethiopia, Mali, Senegal, Comoros, Turkey, Algeria, Morocco, the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, and France – show how each population tried to protect their feet from the cold or the heat. In Pakistan, for example, sandals called Tauranwari juttis were equipped with excessively thick leather soles in order to travel in the arid plains of the Indus. The back of the shoe was open and narrow in order to remove sand that could eventually sink in, while coloured pom poms served both as an ornament and as protection for the toes. In other sunny climates, these same types of open shoes were called Katouba, Nail, or Deyman. Today, each of these pairs of open shoes reflects local customs and habits, as well as traditions and know-how through their eclectic styles, materials, and craftsmanship.

During the same period, in excessively cold regions such as the Chuvash Republic, so-called Laptis shoes were crafted from birch bark, which is reputed for its antibacterial properties. The material was braided diagonally in a very tight way in order to fit the instep like a second skin – and to allow mobility in this snow-covered region, located on the left bank of the Volga River. Whereas in Paris, and many other major cities in Western Europe, most shoe designs were then elevated with heels, plateaux, and wooden soles because there were still neither paved streets nor sidewalks. In other words, there was as much mud in the heart of the city as in the middle of the countryside.

Overall, Marche et démarche emphasises that walking was not an obligation for everyone until the end of the 19th century. “In all cultures, there were those who walked and those who didn’t,” explained Denis Bruna, the exhibition’s curator. The starting point of this display was the discovery of a shoe worn in 1792 by Marie Antoinette, which was 21 centimetres long – the equivalent of a size 33 shoe nowadays – and no more than 5 centimetres wide. “How could a 37-year-old woman have slipped her foot into such a small shoe?” continued the chief curator of the pre-1800 fashion and textile collections at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. Many documents of the time confirmed that members of the upper class walked very little on their own. We also discovered a podiatry manual, dating from 1802, which provides various tips for thin feet and recommends techniques for bandaging and toe folds. These techniques are reminiscent of the cult of the “golden lotus,” the name given to the small feet of Chinese women that was once obtained at the cost of several years of restraining the lower limbs of young girls during their growth.

This unbridled fetishism for the female foot ended up not fading away with time – as proved by current contemporary shoe styles. In the second half of the 19th century, the invention of the burglary even tended to further accentuate the fantasy around shoes. Placed inside the sole, this metal part has made it possible to off-center the height of the shoe towards the back, and therefore develop the first heels, accentuate the foot’s arch, and stretch the opposite end at the tip of the toes... Are these pumps more comfortable to walk with than traditional pint shoes from the past? The exhibition’s staging offers every visitor the opportunity to judge for themselves by using replicas of several overly perched period pairs of heels. These extravagant shoe models have not failed to inspire fashion designers since the mid-20th century. This fascination is precisely the subject of the second part of the exhibition, which features spectacular pairs of contemporary shoes designed by Paco Rabanne, Alexander McQueen, Iris van Herpen, Iris Schieferstein, Noritaka Tatehana, Masaya Kushino, Vicente Rey, and Benoît Méléard – not to mention the ultra-sexy models that Christian Louboutin had imagined in 2007 as part of a photographic project co-created with the esteemed film director David Lynch and the Crazy Horse dancers. The images from this collaboration are displayed high up behind small curtains that the younger visitors are hardly able to lift... needless to say: the fascination for shoes (and feet) often starts at a very young age.

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