But the installation does dig deeper with some pairings, explaining, in a quirky manner, the underlying reason for a certain shoe’s style. The MFA links two beautifully preserved Venetian chopines (an early version of the high heel) with a postcard-perfect depiction of a Venice canal by Canaletto (“Bacino di San Marco”). The only thing the image lacks, in this context, is a hint of the city’s population — say, hordes of rich women tottering to the shops in their platforms. Still, the relationship explains the significance of the drastic shoe height — in Venice, water is everywhere, and what proper lady would want to find herself with wet toes? Of course, the chopine had a symbolic function, as well. The shoe heel could soar to as high as 20 inches, and thus required any fashionista who dared sport them to hire an attendant on whom she would balance to keep from falling. If only we could get a better sense of this here — the idea is especially funny when considered in light of a Hollywood personal-assistant’s duties. Wintour and moguls like P. Diddy have their own umbrella holders. And, in addition to making Starbucks runs, Britney Spears’s various handlers are expected to ensure she doesn’t land on her ass when she’s dancing tipsily in her cowboy boots on a table at Club Hyde.
“Walk This Way” also creates scenarios where a pair of shoes are matched with another pair of shoes. Take, for example, the Italian women’s “slap-sole” shoes from the 1600s included in the collection. They’re leather, embellished with silk, metallic embroidery, and intended solely for indoor wear. The MFA matches them with a similarly conceived Marc Jacobs platform wedge, crafted in Italy for his 2006 collection. The coupling confirms the influence of the past design on Jacobs’ present inspiration, and the obvious effect the old continues to have on the new. But it also proves a bigger point about bending the rules. Fashion royalty is no longer what it once was. An Italian courtesan of the 17th century would likely have been expected to sport these extravagant slap-sole shoes as a matter of course — such finery, for her, would have been the norm.
Yet the personal taste of the current queens of the best-dressed list can get a bit more unpredictable. Gambling with one’s appearance suggests that you’re in the top echelon of the fashion elite: a conventionally cute piece isn’t always as desirable as an article that can be considered witty, distinctive, crazy, or, just really, really ugly. Kate Moss, the super-waif who has graced hundreds of magazine covers, could easily get away with wearing the Marc Jacobs platforms one day, and the next, be photographed tooling around London in a pair of Crocs — those ill-conceived, plastic clogs that resemble garish blocks of rainbow-colored Swiss cheese, and make even the quintessential design muse appear unfuckable. Nevertheless, Crocs and cocaine have done little to take away Moss’s power. I doubt Catherine de Medici would have gotten away with either.