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BOSTON — Curator Pamela Parmal can motor along in her Kate Spade flats, which is useful because the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s new footwear exhibit is spread out along a half-mile trail through the building.
“Walk This Way,” running through March 23, juxtaposes 32 pairs of shoes with objects in the museum’s permanent gallery. Sometimes the shoe-object pairing is one of design inspiration, as in a 1991 Vivienne Westwood platform pump and two panels of early 18th-century brocade silk that appears to have inspired it. Other times it’s a cultural wink, such as Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka’s rubber-coated cleat near a Greek amphora showing the barefoot athletes of antiquity.
The MFA’s first shoe exhibit since the Seventies is intended to lure visitors deep into permanent collections, which can lack attention amid the fanfare of traveling shows. Patrons who want to see “Walk” in its entirety will need to hoof it from the Etruscan galleries to contemporary studio craft galleries and back.
That’s what Parmal does. Zipping past a laboratory where a depiction of George Washington on horseback is being conserved on the mammoth canvas “The Passage of the Delaware” by Thomas Sully, she stops at a pair of Italian “slap sole” shoes with silver embroidery, dating from the 1660s. The shoe takes its name from a thin, extra sole running over the opening between the ball of the foot and the heel that would have “slapped” as the wearer walked. The Italian pair sits next to a Marc Jacobs’ fall 2006 suede silver snakeskin and tulle runway shoe with a similar, bridge-like sole.
“We wanted to make some of the pairings a surprise,” said Parmal, the David and Roberta Logie curator of Textile and Fashion Arts. With MFA director Malcolm Rogers, Parmal has been on a mission to strengthen and more frequently show the museum’s contemporary fashion collections. “We wanted to show what these objects can reveal about the cultures who made them and the people who wore them.”
Then she was off again, past students sketching Egyptian scarab beetles to nod at a Miu Miu patent leather wedge with a gilded, carved wooden sole ensconced next to similarly gilded, 18th-century rococo furniture.
Then it’s on to Marilyn Monroe’s brown suede Delman sandals, displayed next to an Andy Warhol print of the screen siren. The show also contains a pair of Henri Clootens men’s thigh boots, used for the theater or costume balls, and ornate Turkish foot stilts, known as kabkabs. The foot stilts, covered with ivory, silver and mother-of-pearl inlay, were used to keep bathers’ feet off watery tile, an ancient equivalent of flip-flops. They are paired with an exoticized 1870 Jean-Léon Gérôme canvas titled “Moorish Bath,” showing a nude woman being waited on by an attendant in a setting where the stilts might have been used.
Chronologically, the shoes range from a Nubian thong sandal circa 593-568 B.C. (next to a colossal granite statue carved wearing an identical style) to 2007 Manolo Blahnik mary janes. The latter are paired with a shell-toe Run DMC-designed Adidas Superstar 35, in a vignette that’s either the first or last word, depending on where you start the tour, about shoes as potent status symbols.