V&A presents extreme footwear in Shoes: Pleasure and Pain exhibition

From opulent royal foot apparel to dangerously high stilettos, a new exhibition at London's V&A museum explores the "human obsession with shoes" over 2,000 years (+ slideshow).

V&A Shoes Pleasure and Pain exhibition
High & Mighty shoot, American Vogue, February 1995 (model Nadja Auermann) Dolce & Gabbana suit, Summer 1995. Image courtesy Estate of Helmut Newton. Photograph by Maconochie Photography

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain includes "impractical, un-functional and overly decorated" shoes that demonstrate how many different cultures have used footwear as a form of personal expression, or to announce status and aid seduction.

V&A Shoes Pleasure and Pain exhibition
NOVA, by Zaha Hadid for United Nude. Image courtesy United Nude

The exhibition – which opens to the public on Saturday – was curated by Helen Persson, who specialises in textiles and dress in the V&A's Asian department. It features designs from the museum's archives, along with loans from individuals and institutions – some of which have never before left their country of origin.

V&A Shoes Pleasure and Pain exhibition
RiRi, Sophia Webster, Spring Summer 2013

"Shoes are pleasure, with a bit of pain," Persson told Dezeen. "This is what shoes are about – these two extremes that we have accepted and kind of take for granted."

V&A Shoes Pleasure and Pain exhibition
Wedding toe-knob paduka, silver and gold over wood, India, 1800s. Image courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum

Contemporary creations by over 70 designers such as Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin, Jimmy Choo and Prada are presented alongside historic footwear from the Far East, India and Europe that date back two millennia.

V&A Shoes Pleasure and Pain exhibition
Chopines, Punched kid leather over carved pine, Venice, Italy, c. 1600, V&A. Image courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Spilt over two levels at the centre of the museum's fashion gallery, the exhibition is divided thematically to present different ways in which shoes can alter or enhance their wearer.

"We explore the power of shoes, the transformative capacity of shoes, or we're talking about status: the design, the material, the decoration," said Persson. "The more opulent or higher designs are saying 'these are not made for walking'."

V&A Shoes Pleasure and Pain exhibition
Freed of London (founded in 1929), red ballet shoes made for Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) in The Red Shoes (1948), silk satin, braid and leather, England, 1948. Image courtesy Northampton Museums and Art Gallery

Shoes from stories and folklore, including the Wizard of Oz and Cinderella, are represented in the first display.

Another section is dedicated to the painful ancient Chinese practise of foot binding, which involves breaking bones in the feet and wrapping them tightly to stunt their growth and enable them to fit into tiny shoes.

V&A Shoes Pleasure and Pain exhibition
‘InvisibleNakedVersion’ Andreia Chaves, 2011. Photograph by Andrew Bradley

Flat wooden Japanese Geta sandals and lace-up leather boots with extreme heels are both shown as examples of how footwear has been used for seduction in different cultures.

The designs in the Status section demonstrate how decoration and height have been used throughout history to represent social rank.

V&A Shoes Pleasure and Pain exhibition
Mens' shoes, gilded and marbled leather, Northamptonshire, England, c.1925. Image courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum

"Shoes change the way you walk," Persson said. "They can either limit the way you walk, they can raise you above the crowd, and if they are really opulent, everyone will look at your shoes and you would stand out in a crowd."

"That would show your status, your wealth and your place in society. With that, also your sexual appeal," she added.

V&A Shoes Pleasure and Pain exhibition
Roger Vivier (1907–98) for Christian Dior (1905–1957). Evening shoe, beaded silk and leather, France, 1958-60. Image courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Futuristic designs such as architect Zaha Hadid's chrome-plated Nova shoes with 16.5-centimetre cantilevered heels are also displayed.

Upstairs, the final section presents shoes as collectible items with samples from the hoards of six collectors, including two historic fanatics and an Adidas trainer obsessive.

V&A Shoes Pleasure and Pain exhibition
One sandal, gilded and incised leather and papyrus, Egypt, c30 BC-300 CE. Image courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum

There is also an area dedicated to the design and manufacture of footwear, which explains how traditional cordwainer techniques are used to make shoes.

At the back of the upper level, a screening area formed from an arc of stacked shoe boxes plays film interviews with designers including Blahnik and Louboutin, who are internationally renowned for their footwear.

V&A Shoes Pleasure and Pain exhibition
Caroline Groves (b.1959), 'Parakeet' shoes, Photograph by Dan Lowe

"If I could pick a pair and take them home, I would chose the Marilyn Monroe shoes because they're very simple, surprisingly for such a sexy woman, and you can still see the imprints of her toes inside and I find that very touching," said Persson. "Shoes are intimate."

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain runs from 13 June 2015 to 31 January 2016.