The Oxford English Dictionary describes shoes as ‘a covering for the foot, typically made of leather, having a sturdy sole and not reaching above the ankle’. However, if the V&A Museum’s Shoes: Pleasure & Pain exhibition taught us anything at all, it’s that there is much more to them than that.
The exhibition showcases extreme footwear along with the people who have owned, collected and, in some cases, endured them through the ages and across the globe. Focusing on the main themes of status, sex and seduction, the cultural significance of footwear is brought to life by hundreds of pairs on show.
David Beckham’s Adidas football boots with “Brooklyn” embossed on the tongues sit alongside the glass slippers created for Lily James in her role as Cinderella. Both are examples of footwear’s storytelling capabilities for marketers: while Beckham’s boots can make young boys feel like sporting superstars, Cinderella’s slippers depict the classic rags to riches story with no introduction needed.
Throughout history, footwear has had the ability to affect a wearer’s movement and pairs from centuries apart can be strikingly similar. Shoes from seemingly different worlds – platforms worn by a geisha, silver sandals gifted to an Indian princess, miniscule shoes from China for bound feet – would ultimately serve the same purpose. In this case, to slow and restrict the movement of the women wearing them.
The exhibition explores the often perverse relationship people have with shoes. The set-up is reminiscent of a boudoir with its dim lighting and dark velvet. Walking around feels voyeuristic yet fascinating in equal measure, particularly in the ‘seduction’ section where a pair of Christian Louboutin shoes are at such an extreme angle, the wearer has no choice but to crawl. You get an insight into a dark and mysterious world you may not otherwise know.
The V&A has created a truly comprehensive and global retrospective of shoes. Not only is there an even split of men’s and women’s footwear, relatively new designers such as Sophia Webster have their work displayed alongside industry heavyweights like Manolo Blahnik. Each shoe has a story and the craftsmen are given a voice – a big screen encased in shoeboxes shows designers and shoe makers talking about everything from their inspiration to the intricacies of the design process.
We left the exhibition inspired, excited and fascinated by the vivid and creative stories that footwear can tell. Certainly something to think about next time we’re looking for unexpected brand communications ideas for a client – or, of course, when we’re struck by a craving to buy a really great pair of killer shoes.