Ever since Salvatore Ferragamo designed the first stiletto heel in 1955, podiatrists have faced a steady stream of female patients seeking physical relief from their devotion to fashion over function. In fact, the ability to withstand torture may well be the cornerstone of the beauty industry. What smilingly suffering, trend-obsessed chick hasn’t endured the excruciating pain of corset tops, skinny jeans, or five-pound hipster Mr. T chain necklaces? But standing at the top of any list of the most inhumane and agonizing manifestations of style are, of course, shoes.
Any fashion person will tell you that it’s absolutely essential to pretend the anguish doesn’t actually exist, and that it’s in fact pleasurable to spend hundreds of dollars on pieces of stitched leather that mangle her toes and alter the alignment of her spine. Occasionally, though, someone on the inside will take it upon themselves to issue a bit of a wake-up call. Liz Jones, a British fashion reporter at The Daily Mail, reported last week on the hellacious fashion challenge she undertook: to wear eight of the season’s most stylish, desirable high heels during New York Fashion Week. By the end of her experiment, Jones reported, her feet resembled “pink hams,” and, when they saw her hobbling to her gate, airport staff offered her a wheelchair. To be utterly miserable in a breathtaking pair of four-inch Burberry platform sandals is to reach the apex of sartorial élan. God, it hurts to look good.
Scholars believe that shoes were originally invented (the first known shoe dates from around 7000 BC) for practical purposes — a protective covering to keep feet from snagging on rocks or burning in the sand. It wasn’t long, though, before cobblers would be forced to deviate from their objective and instead satisfy a wearer’s desire for flash and sophistication — in other words, everything people tend to love about shoes today. In its latest fashion installation, “Walk This Way,” the Museum of Fine Arts documents the transformation that turned footwear into a chief status symbol.
The exhibit is an aesthetic treasure hunt not unlike a long search for the ideal pair of versatile, tall, flat brown boots: you must forage for the goods, and the level of exertion required is similar to spending an afternoon pillaging the bins at Filene’s Basement. I wouldn’t recommend wearing heels on either excursion. Still, the reward is worth the effort.
The MFA has billed “Walk This Way” as the first exhibit of its kind, by virtue of the curatorial decision to match the shoes displayed throughout the museum’s existing galleries with the works of art already in place. Rather than walk through a separate room of boots and ballet slippers, visitors navigate the museum with a map as a guide. The pairing of the various shoes and their partnered painting, sculpture, or textile lends additional insight into the footwear’s design. Through the pairing conceit, the curators of “Walk This Way” have successfully achieved what many other fashion exhibits have failed to do: they’ve equated the artistic merits of costume and fashion on completely equal ground with classical masterpieces from other genres. “It makes you think about people, how they must have lived, what they’d be wearing, and the lifestyle that goes along with shoes like that,” says Lauren Whitley, a co-curator of the exhibit and a member of the MFA’s Textile and Fashion Arts Department.