My Heaven: An Exhibition on Shoes

I’ll admit it: I have a shoe problem. I’m also pretty sure that any of my friends could tell you that I have a ridiculous amount of shoes, most of which I can’t wear on a daily basis. I’m not entirely sure when it started, or why for that matter, but shoes are definitely my favorite part of any outfit. Just to give you a better understanding, when I was working on college applications (which feels like eons ago) one of the supplementary prompts was “Why did you do it?” That’s a pretty open ended question, with endless opportunities and guess what I wrote about: buying a pair of shoes. It was definitely my favorite essay to write out of all of the supplemental college essays I wrote that year. I hadn’t done any other academic work on shoes until my senior year of college when I took a class on the History of Gendered Fashion. I then gave a presentation on the gendered history of shoes starting in the 14th century working my way to the present. (If you ever find yourself bored  looking at the Met’s collection of shoes was a lot of fun. I highly recommend it.) I know I was critical of the Met’s Costume Institute last week but I am always in awe of their shows and their collection and secretly hoping that they’d do a show exclusively on shoes.

Now I’m sure you’re asking yourself, “What does this have to do with museums….isn’t that what this whole blog is supposed to be about?”  Well, my dream has come true and the world has combined two of my favorite things: museums and shoes!

There is an entire exhibition dedicated to shoes at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts that opened November 19th,2016 and will be on display until March 12, 2017. The exhibition is called Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, a very fitting description of any shoe lover’s twofold relationship with any pair of shoes. As their press release states, the exhibition was organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and consists of over 300 pairs of shoes (110 of which are from the Peabody Essex Museum’s collection) “that explores the creative potential, cultural significance and transformative” power of shoes. This exhibition also follows the evolution of technology to reach new heights and creative shapes.

According to the few articles I have found on the exhibition, the show is divided into thematic categories: Transformation, Status, Seduction, Creation and Obsession. In contrast to the Met’s understanding of fashion, as telling of the creativity of the designers on display, the Peabody Essex’s Deputy Director and coordinating curator Lynda Roscoe Hartigan believes that “Shoes are about the personal creativity of the designer and the person who wears that shoe” because “creation is about communication.” In the case of this exhibition, it isn’t just the designer of the shoe who makes it famous, it can also be the person who wore it, as is the case of the blue 9-inch heels worn by Naomi Campbell during the infamous 1993 Vivienne Westwood runway show fall.  Now this show isn’t just dedicated to the innovations of women’s shoes throughout history. For any male shoe lover, there are the very noisy slap-sole shoes from the 17th century as well as shoes worn by Elton John and David Beckham. (There is probably more than just three pairs of male shoes, but those are the only ones mentioned in recent write ups)

This exhibition sounds exactly up my alley, combining history and innovation into one show with my favorite subject matter at its epicenter. More importantly, the Peabody Essex Museum shop has transformed into a shoe store for the duration of the exhibition! What could be better than a shoe store in a museum?!  Well, how about giving back? The Museum is also running a shoe drive (which closes today) for women’s shoes to be donated to Dress for Success Boston. Considering it just closed, I’m not sure how successful the drive was (the last Twitter update stated 657 pairs) but it definitely is a nice way to give back to the community while also helping promote your own exhibition.

What’s been frustrating about doing some reading on this exhibition is the lack of images of the exhibition/collection. As seen on the exhibition page, there are just a few images of the shoes in the exhibition but there are no installation photos of the exhibition itself. Considering the exhibition has now been open for almost two weeks, this seems a little unusual. Their press release states that official images and captions could be shared upon request, but that cannot really help their promotion of the exhibition. While I’m the type of person who wants to see the exhibition regardless of the availability of installation images, there are definitely people who want to see how a space looks before going. Even their promotional video doesn’t give any clues of what the exhibition looks like. Maybe when the exhibition has been open a little bit longer, some images of the exhibition will surface.

I did notice that the Peabody Essex Museum’s Twitter  has shared a “Shoe Story” in relation to the exhibition. It wasn’t made entirely clear on their Twitter if this is meant to be a promotional event, because there wasn’t a hashtag associated with the tweet. Maybe they are sharing stories that were shared with them in exhibition? I definitely think this could be a valuable promotional tool for them though, should they create a hashtag like #pemshoes for people to share their stories and experiences at the exhibition. It seems like the Peabody Essex Museum could be doing a lot more to get their exhibition some internet publicity.


Either way, it seems like a trip to Boston and Salem are in my near future!





There are Many Ways to Collect…

Today I was reading an article by Alexandra Jacobs about two different exhibitions on fashion: one at the Henry Ford Museum outside of Detroit, Michigan and the other at the Costume Institute at the Met in New York. As the article outlines, the shows focus on two very different sections of America’s fashion history, thus highlighting two different collecting/curating techniques found in museums across the country. The Henry Ford Museum’s exhibition “American Style and Spirit”which displays the wardrobe of Augusta Roddis, a longtime advocate of education and daughter of a lumber mogul. In stark contrast, the Met just opened an exhibition entitled “Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion” which highlights extravagant and avant-garde works from the likes of Chanel, McQueen, and Versace. As Jacobs notes in her article, these shows are paradigms of two battling curatorial practices: “populist versus elite; contextualized versus abstracted; local versus global.”

As the Costume Institute’s curator, Andrew Bolton, makes clear, the collecting focus of the Met “prefers runway samples” because they “reflect the designer’s original intention.” This preference places the importance not on the people who actually wore the outfit, but rather the person who created it. Just as there is a canon in art, Mr. Bolton aims to elevate members of the fashion community into a similarly styled canon. This idea is readily seen in the recent shows at the Costume Institute such as “Manus x Machina” and even “China: Through the Looking Glass”. These exhibitions brought together works from a variety of eras and designers to discus larger themes, rather than tell the story of a single person. These shows also bring together blockbuster designers in order to create crowd appeal. “China: Through the Looking Glass” was the Met’s most popular exhibition in years in part because of its use of historic Chinese attire as a foil for contemporary high-fashion designs. The most recent shows at the Costume Institute scream of elitism because most people can only appreciate these intangible designs from an aesthetic perspective. There is very little relatable material at the Costume Institute exhibitions, and in many ways that is their appeal; these exhibitions are an escape from the every day into the extraordinary world of fashion gods like Anna Wintour. They are Vogue Editorials brought into the museum.

The Henry Ford Museum exhibition is the polar opposite. “American Style and Spirit” uses the wardrobe of Augusta Roddis as a means to discuss what America was like at the time. Instead of putting the visitors into an awestruck stupor, Jeannine Head Miller, the museum’s curator of domestic life, “wanted to bring people into the exhibit and not feel like they had to be fashionistas to enjoy it.” Much of Ms. Roddis’ wardrobe was made by anonymous dress makers, with only the patterns evidence of a dress’s creation. The focus of this exhibition, then, is on the story these clothes can tell, in collaboration with letters and receipts. While the Met and the Costume Institute focus on the garment and the creator, the Henry Ford Museum uses its fashion archive to tell another story about America’s past. There is a contextualization that does not appear in the theatrical shows on display in New York. But perhaps that’s okay.

Reading this article got me thinking more deeply about museums, both small and large, and their role in defining culture. If we looked solely at institutions such as the Met as the source of fashion culture and history, the only names that would be seen as important would be those featured heavily in their exhibitions. Mr. Brodrick has made it clear that his fashion preference is “designers who in a way make us think differently about fashion, who go beyond notions of wearability or functionality,” but what about the designers who don’t fit that mold? While the avant-garde designers are certainly making waves in fashion with their daring style, there are certainly designers worth noting who make clothes for the every day woman. If these clothes are not being collected as well, how will the exhibitions of the future look? Certainly, people cannot think that the Yves Saint Laurent dress made out of bird-of-paradise feathers was worn by every woman? Only time will tell.

What someone choses to collect tells a lot of about the collector, but also deeply influences how the past will be seen by generations to come. The Met, through their fashion archives, tells a very particular story about a very small subset of fashion throughout history.  The Henry Ford Museum is attempting to tell a different story, one that contains some of the same high fashion names but also brings to light long-forgotten designers and stores. There are so many other stories out there, but it seems like no one is out there collecting them. Unfortunately, beginning to archive the everyday is an impossible task that creates a very slippery slope of what is worth collecting. Fashion changes so frequently and it is near impossible to know what will have a lasting effect on fashion years from now. But I think it’s worth a shot to try and tell the non-obvious story. It’s my hope that other institutions will see the possibility of looking at the mundane as a means to creating a larger narrative.