For Elizabeth Semmelhack, chief curator of the Bata Shoe Museum, shoes and their cultural implications never get old. “I saw it was a huge opportunity to do primary research,” she says of her job, which she started in 2000. “I have an art history background, and this was multifaceted in a way that would keep me continuously curious.”
She has two shows, one, “Standing Tall: The Curious History of Men in High Heels,” is due to go up on May 8 at the Bata, which is in Toronto, the other, “Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture,” at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, will open July 10.
While doing research for the first, she learned that high heels were born in the Near East, where they were worn by riders who found they helped keep them in stirrups, before they traveled to Europe. Now they’re identified with women. “When you talk about men in heels, everyone talks about ideas of transgression,” she says. “Not a single person mentions a cowboy” — who, of course, is an icon of masculinity. For women, in fact, high heels can be totems of power, but not for men. “Most CEOs are 6’2” or over,” Semmelhack says. For those who aren’t, “wearing high heels would just be seen as emphasizing what is missing.”
She sees Seventies’ glam-rock style, as epitomized by David Bowie, Elton John and Gene Simmons, rather than being unisex, as harking back to the elaborate men’s style of the era of Louis XIV, the Sun King, when long wigs, elaborately draped garments and high-heeled shoes were de rigueur for men.
The Bata museum, founded by Sonja Bata, wife of the head of Bata Shoes, is celebrating its 20th anniversary with the opening of this show and a gala.
Her favorite pieces include a pair of Persia riding boots. “I feel that these Persian shoes are very pivotal,” she says. There is also a pair of boy’s shoes from 1660 with stacked heels and big bows.
In the sneaker show, she’s partial to some of the earliest pieces. “Rubber was only vulcanized in 1839,” she points out. Tennis shoes would appeal to members of “an emerging mercantile class who wanted to flaunt the fact that they had leisure time.”
Later, the pieces became democratized, then became status objects all over again. Sneakers were loaned by many people and firms, including Dee Wells and Bobbito Garcia, Puma and Reebok. Some of the earliest were made by the Candee Rubber Co. Initially, there was no notion of branding them. That changed when Keds launched Champion in 1916, and Converse All-Stars launched the next year.
The curator has written several books, including two to go with the new shows. “I wrote my first book on chopines,” she says, referring to the high platform shoes most strongly associated with Venice, although it appears that they, too, began elsewhere. “I traced them back to antiquity,” she adds. “Aphrodite was depicted wearing very high-platform footwear throughout the classical world.”
Extremely luxurious chopines were associated with Spain, where women were generally completely covered in dark clothing; the only part of them that could be seen were their feet, and skirts would be short enough to graze the tops of the elaborate chopines they wore to display their wealth, “suggesting what beautiful attire was hidden under those black cloaks.”
In Venice, however, she says, “chopines were completely hidden under skirts.” It was a form of conspicuous consumption. “With longer dresses, the addition of 22 inches of fabric meant a massive increase in the amount of expenditure.” The way women dressed illustrated their family’s status. “They were only put on view on certain days of the year,” she continues. “They were like parade floats showing how wealthy their families were.”
An upcoming show covers the Arctic. The museum has one of the largest collections of polar footwear in the world. In such extreme temperatures, the practicality of an item such as boots can be a life-and-death issue. In areas including Alaska, Greenland and Siberia, “They arrived at a very different solutions to similar problems,” Semmelhack says. Each type of boot is made from a different skin — sealskin or reindeer — has a different sole and is decorated differently. In Greenland, for instance, “tiny, tiny rectangles of sealskin are stitched into patterns that look almost like needlepoint.”