While shoes are sometimes overlooked in fashion history, they are a staple in our wardrobe that metaphorically and literally carry us through life.
Step into FIT‘s new exhibition, “Shoes: Anatomy, Identity, Magic,” which explores our physical, social and psychological relationships with footwear. From Sept. 1 through Dec. 31, visitors can view select works curated by the museum’s Director, Dr. Valerie Steele, and Curator of Costume and Accessories Colleen Hill, featuring over 300 pairs of shoes narrowed down from the museum’s 5,000.
“Frequently [past exhibitions] do shoes by designer, or a retrospective of one designer, or a show focused on one type of shoe,” Steele says. “We wanted an approach that was a little different.”
Through the perspectives of anatomy, identity and magic, one is able to gain a holistic understanding of Western women’s shoe fashion beginning in the 18th century from the exhibition. Staged in the museum’s basement gallery, it opens with infant shoes, chronicling how our lives begin with fitted footwear. A looping video of scenes from various films, such as “Sex and the City” and “The Devil Wears Prada,” play in the background, highlighting moments when footwear makes an indelible mark on popular culture.
“We really wanted people to think for themselves; we kept our texts to a minimum. For the most part, it’s left to the viewer to think about what the choice of footwear says about them,” Hill says.
The first section, titled “Anatomy,” explores how shoes affect the physiology of our feet, influencing the way we move. The irony is that many shoes are actually not designed to fit us. Take, for instance, Noritaka Tatehana‘s 18-inch “point shoes” (the same model donned by Lady Gaga in her video, “Marry the Night”): These surreal, elongated platforms are neither conducive to walking nor to the ease of movement. A vertiginous five-inch Walter Steiger heel seems equally daunting to wear, yet it’s ergonomically correct because the tip of the heel lands just under the center of the heel bone. Other highlights from the anatomy section include a Pierre Cardin molded leather shoe with toe-shaped ridges and a zebra-print Manolo Blahnik pump that coyly exposes the wearer’s toes. The goal is to prompt viewers to carefully observe these items, reflect on whether or not they would wear the shoes and examine their own physical relationships with footwear.
The second section, “Identity,” revolves around our tendencies to associate shoes with different types of people. The curators pose the question: “Shoe are you?”
“Along with clothes in general, shoes have become more a question of personal choice,” Steele says, noting that shoes are now available in a wide range of price points. “In the past, it was whether or not you could afford shoes at all, so it was much more prescribed. Now, there’s a choice.” (A Birkenstock tells a very different story than a high-heel, for instance.)
With greater choice comes greater distinction in styles, each of which conveys a different message about identity. One wall is dedicated solely to designer shoes, which allows wearers to identify with the elite world of high fashion. We see how some look to the past for inspiration; Azzedine Alaïa‘s patent leather boots, for instance, are a modernized version of a more practical style from the 20th century, reflecting how our fashion identities are closely linked with iterations of the past.
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That includes sneakerheads. For the hype beasts out there, the exhibition features a fair amount of coveted sneakers, including a pair of Nike “Air Jordan I” basketball sneakers and a Bathing Ape “Bapesta” sneaker from 2002.
The final section, “Magic,” taps into our perception that the right pair of shoes can endow you with enhanced skills or powers. A pair of Nike Air Jordans connote athletic ability, while a pair of Ancient Greek winged sandals made in 2022 reference mythology and evoke the magical capabilities of flight.
Shoes are also physical manifestations of our enchantment with fairytales. We see a pair of Andreia Chaves glass-and-3D-printed-nylon wedges as a nod to the story of Cinderella, as well as a pair of demure red Morocco leather flats that reference Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes. “
Magic plays an equally big factor in our shopping experience. Per Steele’s creative vision, the center of the main exhibition is designed like a shoe boutique. Pairs of glamorous heels sit within candy-box-like displays, tempting the viewer to try them on.
“From the beginning, I wanted to do something with a shoe shop in the middle of the show… this power and allure of shoes and shopping for shoes,” Steele says. The boutique reveals how shoes are often the objects of desire: We envision that our lives can change if we just find the right pair of shoes, imbuing the shopping experience with a degree of magic.
Clever curatorial choices are made throughout the exhibition. At times, there are very obvious pairings, such as a men’s and women’s version of Christian Louboutin Dandy Love slippers. Other times, interesting juxtapositions create historically rich, visually exquisite comparisons, like Louboutin “fetish ballerina” pumps residing alongside Alberto Guardiani “lipstick” heels, demonstrating how high heels consistently prioritize vanity over practicality.
“Shoes: Anatomy, Identity, Magic” is revelatory in many ways. We’re reminded that shoes are indispensable to our daily lives, yet they’re so often overlooked. In fact, they carry physical, social and psychological importance. A visit to the exhibition will equip you with not only a better understanding of the cultural zeitgeist of any given decade, but also a better understanding of one’s sartorial choices.
“Shoes: Anatomy, Identity, Magic” at the Museum at FIT in New York City runs from Sept. 1 through Dec. 31.