(Originally blogged December 9, 2009)
Xray of a chopine showing spikes used to strengthen and attach the two blocks of wood used in its construction. Photograph copyright 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston / X-ray courtesy of Joel Thompson, Associated Textile Conservator and Richard Newman, Research Scientist
I love it when I find preeminent exhibitions. The Met’s Poiret exhibition in 2007 and the Yves St. Laurent retrospective in Montreal in 2008 were both superlative shows that could not have been better.
The Bata Shoe Museum now joins this prestigious circle with its newest exhibition On A Pedestal: From Renaissance Chopines to Baroque Heels. This is the best assemblage of Renaissance and Baroque footwear ever seen – in fact I think about a half of all extant Chopines are in this display. The exhibition is small (these are shoes we are talking about, and even if they are upwards of a metre tall they are still usually not more than a size 4), but the privilege to see these all gathered into one gallery is memorable.
It is a miracle that the twenty or so examples of Chopines (some pairs, some singles) survived at all considering the oldest complete dress dates only from 1640, at the end of the Chopine’s height of popularity which had begun over a century before – fifty years before the rise of the heel. It is the story of the heel that makes up the second part of the exhibition. The origin of the heel is traced from Middle Eastern horseback riding (the heel kept the shoe in place in the stirrup) to Baroque Northern European high-street fashions. Most amazing and amusing are the cross-over styles that use both platforms and high heels and look surprisingly familiar (yes Nicholas Kirkwood I am looking at you.)
Cover of the Exhibition catalogue ‘On a Pedestal’, by Elizabeth Semmelhack, curator, Bata Shoe Museum
There is an excellent catalogue to accompany the exhibition, available in the museum’s gift shop, that traces the history of the platform and the heel back to ancient times and foreign lands. This is a wise purchase as my only complaint about the exhibition is the usual unavoidable problem of trying to read text in a dimly lit gallery, but the shoes are five hundred years old and I am not yet fifty, so they need more care than I do…
I highly recommend making the trip if you can because the shoes in this exhibition come from museums around the world (from Boston to Venice to Stockholm) and they don’t normally travel because of their age and rarity. One of the examples on display is at the museum only because the funds were donated to conserve it before being sent to the Bata Shoe Museum. On A Pedestal runs until September 20, 2010, so you have plenty of time to make plans for the pilgrimage!