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Shoes: Inside Out

The intriguing mystery of our obsession with footwear

It’s safe to say that shoes score top of the list when it comes to attire people are obsessed with. From the infamous Imelda Marcos’ reported 3,000 pairs to Paris Hilton’s 2,000 or NBA player Russell Westbrook’s 1,000, our obsession with footwear seems to date back to Ancient Egypt, where shoes said a lot about where you stood in society.

The Hampshire Cultural Trust holds a remarkable collection of historic shoes and boots, which are the focus of an intriguing exhibition that deals with our fascination for footwear. For starters, shoes say a lot about us; not just status but also line of work, hobbies, taste and even aspirations in life.

Containing around 70 pairs – mostly from the 19th and 20th centuries – Shoes also features several very early objects, including a bone skate from the Anglo-Saxon period (10th–11th century) that was found in Winchester, and four pairs of shoes, a couple with matching pattens, dating from the early 1700s.

Left: Women’s “Flapper” evening shoe, Julienne, France (c.1920s). Right: Women’s shoes, Biba, London (c.1970s).

Among the other objects on display are a WWI officer’s trench boots, early 20th-century clogs and a pair of dance shoes from c.1925 in the flapper style. The second half of the 20th century is represented by 1940s–50s utility wear, 1950s stilettos, brothel creepers and platforms that became synonymous with popular culture in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Sports footwear is also on display in the form of ice skates, roller skates, and baseball and basketball shoes from the likes of Converse and Nike.

Shoes are not just about how beautiful, sexy or cool they are. How they are made matters, and for this exhibition, some have been x-rayed and those images will be displayed alongside the corresponding objects to reveal their construction, developments in design and, in some cases, an ethereal reminiscence of a life lived.

Left: X-ray of women’s Victorian pearled button boots, Joseph Box, London (c.1890-1900). X-ray courtesy of the University of Southampton. Right: X-ray of Biba women’s shoe. X-ray courtesy of Hampshire Cultural Trust.

High-heel lovers may be surprised to learn that they originated in Assyria around 700 BC on riding boots, coinciding with the invention of the stirrup, enabling male soldiers to sit more firmly in the saddle and hold heavier weapons. Elizabeth I wore them in an effort to emphasise her princely masculinity. In contrast, the traditional cowboy boot – with its stacked leather heel designed to keep riders comfortable throughout long days in the saddle – is an item of workwear that’s redolent of masculinity.

Left: Mary Quant shoes (c.1960s). Right: women’s wedge shoes by John Galliano (c.2020s).

An exhibition about shoes couldn’t ignore the rise of high-end designers, represented here by a pair of studded Christian Louboutin stilettos and a pair of shoes made by the late British fashion icon Mary Quant. Other famous labels featured include John Galliano, Biba and Liberty.

For more information and tickets, HERE.

SHOES: INSIDE OUT

The Gallery at The Arc. Jewry Street, Winchester SO23 8SB

This exhibition runs until 6th March 2024

Words: Lavinia Dickson-Robinson

Opening image: “Alti” stiletto shoes, Christian Louboutin (c.2000-2015).

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