SALEM, Mass. — Fetishists, historians, collectors, sneaker freaks — there’s something for everyone in the new show “Shoes: Pleasure and Pain” exhibit, which runs from Saturday to March 12 at the Peabody Essex Museum here.
The show features more than 300 pairs, ranging from leather “duckbills” (1520-1540) worn by fashionable, pre-Elizabethan gents to a pair of 3-D-printed, carbon fiber Julian Hakes heels (2014).
“A hat, or a piece of jewelry is a great finishing touch,” said show curator and PEM deputy director Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, who wore Rupert Sanderson, Manolo Blahnik, Repetto and Art-Peaux to various opening events. “But shoes are fundamental. Humans are born with bare feet and we have to wear something to protect them.”
The Victoria and Albert Museum organized the original version of “Shoes,” but this U.S. debut significantly expands the presentation. PEM has in the neighborhood of 10,000 pairs in its permanent collection, according to Hartigan. About a third of exhibited styles are owned by PEM, and/or local collectors.
The local footwear industry (Boston alone shipped a reported 100 million pairs in 1900) is represented in several places, including in silk-and-metallic thread embroidered samples produced for the 1893 World’s Fair Columbian Exposition by the Haverhill, Mass.-based Hazen B. Goodrich and Co. There are also Jacques Heim for Shain’s styles, produced in Massachusetts in 1960, and worn by affluent Bostonians to John F. Kennedy’s inauguration events.
No matter the era, one footwear desire remains consistent: Height.
“As humans, we’ve always wanted to stand up, stand out from the crowd and get our feet off the ground,” Hartigan reflects, noting that high heels were originally produced for men. Kings wore them with their ermine and lace to suitably impress the populace.
In the high (and dry) category, there are wooden Egyptian bathing clogs, easily 10 inches tall, to keep toes off wet tile. A pair of Italian chopines from the 1600s feature 6-inch, hooflike bottoms. There are the soaring Vivienne Westwood blue mock-crocodile “super elevated Gillies” (1993) that famously caused Naomi Campbell to take a spill on the runway. But in terms of precarious height made gorgeous, nothing surpasses Noritaka Tatehana’s 9-inch, heel-less platforms. Lady Gaga made the style famous, but the pair in the show — embossed coral leather, a gold stud — belong to Daphne Guinness, another aficionada.
The show also includes a new PEM acquisition: Sebastian Errazuriz’s “Twelve Shoes for Twelve Lovers,” a 2013 series made of thermoplastic polymer and featuring styles like the “Golddigger,” “The Boss” and “The Crybaby” (the shoe looks like it’s been splashed into a giant puddle).
The show delivers on it titular promise. In the pleasure department: Elton John’s jolly, rainbow-crystal platform boots, Ferragamo’s prescient gold platform sandal with rainbow sole (from 1938), Prada’s Tail Light flame sandals, inspired by Fifties American cars (2012). Christian Louboutin’s Anemone (2008-2009), the ultimate valentine to shoe lovers, sits in a solo presentation, its heels festooned with an extravagance of looping red silk and waving feathers.
And on the flip side: pain. There are expected choices (teeny embroidered shoes worn by Chinese women with bound feet) and less-expected: the David Lynch-Christian Louboutin fetish collaboration. A pair of ballet pointe have peek-a-boo mesh soles, studs and a slender red “heel” that’s not upright, but curves in like a thorn. The wearer can’t stand in them, only crawl.
There’s the celebrity angle, of course. David Beckham’s Adidas cleats with his firstborn’s name, Brooklyn, embroidered on them; the glass slipper used in the 2012 live action “Cinderella;” Queen Victoria’s delicate ivory silk slippers, and a nod to Kate Middleton, a pair of nude L.K. Bennett shoes. The show ends with credits: a shoe selfie of every designer, technician, curator and publicist who worked on the exhibit.