Shoes, Glorious Shoes

Who knew that there were museums dedicated entirely to shoes? It turns out that there are at least six or seven such places (one in the Netherlands, the International Klompenmuseum, is devoted entirely to wooden shoes) — but the only one I’ve found in North America is in Toronto: The Bata Shoe Museum.


Bolivian “Devil” Dancing Shoes

This museum grew out of Sonja Bata’s fascination with shoes, both contemporary and historical. It started out as her private collection and has grown to a museum that holds over 13,000 shoes and shoe-related objects, which allow viewers to see art, culture, and history through footwear.

The permanent collection starts out with Very Old Shoes, beginning with one of the oldest shoes in the world: the grass, deerskin, and bearskin slipper of the Otzi Man (the guy who died violently in the Alps 5,300 years ago and was accidentally mummified):fullsizeoutput_4999.jpeg

This is not the original, but it gives you a good sense of what people might have been wearing in the thousands of years ago. The sign accompanying it notes that scientists have hiked in test replicas of the shoe and found it “very comfortable.”

Other old shoes on display include remnants of those made by the Egyptians and the Puebloans. This exhibit then quickly transitions to what I would call “old-ish shoes from all around the world.” It includes silver-covered platform shoes from 18th century India …


… gold-ornamented sandals for an Ashanti ruler in West Africa (whose feet were never allowed to touch the earth) …


… and the foot-binding shoes of late 19th and early 20th century China (which forced grown women’s feet to be no more than three inches long):


Because the toes were forced to curl under the foot itself, foot-binding made it extremely difficult to walk — women generally had to shuffle along rather than taking real strides — but I have no idea how anyone managed this pair at all:


Moving back to Europe, we have Gothic armor (a beaked 15th-century sabaton for an equestrian soldier)…fullsizeoutput_49a3

… Italian high heels from the late 17th century …


… and something new for the wealthy: flats (brought on by a Neoclassical restraint and modesty in dress at the time of the French revolution).


After this section of the exhibit, there’s a sort of jumbled move to the modern era, which I found hard to follow (it wasn’t always clear which shoes matched which curatorial label). But I did like this pair of shoes, made in the mid-20th century:


I was fascinated by the range of old platform shoes — many of them look impossible to wear. Three from the 19th-century include Turkish bath sandals, which raised women above the heated flooring and “allowed the wearer to still make a fashion statement in the absence of clothing” …


… Indian paduka, also from the 19th century,  which emitted perfume form the petals on the toe knobs at every step:


… and French chestnut-crushing shoes!


In the section of the first floor that I thought of as “shoes for other things” (which included the crushing of chestnuts), they have a pair of old Dutch skates:


Moving to shoe-related objects, we have boots and button hooks …


… ceramics depicting shoemakers …


Shoemaker in his shop (Netherlands, Delft, 17th century)

… and even a shoemaking saint!


St. Krispin, the patron saint of shoemakers (Czechoslovakia, 1941)

Upstairs, the permanent collection has a mish-mash of items that in my head I called the “unusual shoes” section. These included a pair of Elton John’s fabulous boots …


… a strange set of Dutch wooden clogs with feet carved on the top …


… and a pair of beaded Persian shoes, signed rather grimly underneath by the shoemaker with the words, “May I sacrifice my life for the dust under your feet.”


The next two floors of the Bata Museum have three separate exhibits. We started out in the small “Gold Standard” room, which is full of shoes from around the world that shine and glitter with gold paint …


Byzantine shoes, 400 AD, with the faces of the four apostles


Japanese girl’s pokkuri, 1980 (the heels are hollow so that little bells can tinkle inside)

… gold cloth …


Italian chopine, 1500s, designed to be worn (but not seen) under long dresses to make a woman taller — these things could be as tall as 53 cm!

… gold thread …


Indian mojari, mid-20th century, embroidered


French velvet shoe, Chinese theater boot, and Indian mojari, all 20th century


Myanmar, 1995, disposable ceremonial boy’s shoes meant to mimic royal footwear

… and gold leather…


France, 1930, evening shoes


Sweden, late 1920s or early 1930s, fetish boot (I like think of this as the original kinky boot)

The other exhibit on this floor, “Art and Innovation: Traditional Arctic Footwear,” is probably the most impressive and unusual part of this museum. This part of the collection takes you around the polar world …


… to see all sorts of footwear and other clothing of the north. This means a lot of fur, a lot of skin, and some lovely embroidery. It’s beautiful and impressive stuff! Going around the globe, we saw these traditional sealskin thigh-high boots from Greenland …


… feathered slippers made by an Inuit woman in Nunavut, Canada (she uses one eider duck skin per foot)…


… inlaid fur boots crafted by an Iglulingmiut Inuit seamstress, also in Nunavut …


… beaded boots made by three different Inupiat seamstresses in Shishmaref, Alaska …fullsizeoutput_49dd

… white reindeer skin boots of the Sami from Sampi (in northern Sweden) …


… and a reindeer skin onesie for a Siberian baby!


For something completely different — it’s both fascinating and jarring to go from one exhibit to another in this place — the fourth and final floor of the museum is hosting an exhibit of Depression Era footwear from the US and Europe.


This period marked big changes in female footwear, including “the increased exposure of the female foot.” Shoe companies like Bally (featured above and below) started making dressy peep-toe shoes and strappy sandals:


As a side note, all of this skin baring meant that women had a growing need for stockings, shaving, nail polish, and pedicures! But women also got more time outdoors, as work hours were limited and the government encouraged people to go out to parks and beaches. This era saw a rise in the wearing of sneakers and daytime sandals (in this case, made of wood rather than leather, because leather was rationed):


Gilded evening shoes became the new neutral (you only needed one pair, which meant you could be frugal, and it would go with everything):


In 1938, platform shoes became all the rage:



Salvatore Ferragamo’s rainbow platform, made for Judy Garland

Some shoes of the Depression Era exploded with color …


… while others became more architectural and innovative …


… as designers began to look toward a more hopeful future (the model pictured below — one industrial designer’s prediction of what fashion might look like in the year 2000 — wears an antenna that allows him to use his mobile telephone):


Overall, this is an interesting museum. I did read one critical piece that noted the irony in a giant shoe company, Bata, highlighting First Peoples footwear at the same time that the company is trying to standardize shoe sales (thereby slowing the production of handmade shoes worldwide). That may well be a valid concern, but at the same time, I appreciate a company that goes to the lengths of creating a whole museum. And there’s a lot to see here in a small space!

2 responses to “Shoes, Glorious Shoes

  1. Pingback: 10 Fun Things to Do in Toronto | Traveler Tina·

  2. Pingback: Shoes, Glorious Shoes — Traveler Tina – Ellustar Fashion·

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