Saturday, May 1, 2010

On a Pedestal at the Bata Shoe Museum (Part I)

To step inside the On a Pedestal exhibit at the Bata Shoe Museum is like stepping back in time. The dim lighting,  the Renaissance inspired decor, the reproductions of period paintings hanging in ornate frames and even the period music evoke a time long ago when elegant dress for upper-class women and courtesans was defined by the wearing of tall, pedestal-like shoes.

Velvet covered wooden platforms ornamented with silver lace and silk tassel
Italian 1580-1620
Copyright of Bata Shoe Museum 2010, Toronto, Canada

The history of elevated footwear goes all the way back to ancient Greece and Rome when they were linked to "oriental adornment and concepts of the exotic". During medieval times, elevating footwear was a gender and religious identifier. In the 16th century, such footwear reflected cultural influences, familial status and standards of feminine beauty. At the end of the 16th century, the heel was introduced from the Near East and chopines were eclipsed by the mule and slap sole shoe (which I will discuss in an upcoming post).

Curator Elizabeth Semmelhack guides us through these developments with exquisite examples of such highly provocative footwear including this pair of red velvet chopines from the 16th century which are part of the Bata Shoe Museum collection. Adding much to the understanding of the women that wore such elevated footwear are the reproductions of paintings which illustrate chopines in context. Particularly amusing is the fact that the women in the paintings are often in a state of undress, having kicked off their chopines to luxuriate in comfort!

Italian 16th century red velvet chopines
Copyright of Bata Shoe Museum 2010, Toronto, Canada

Although I've seen chopines before, it never occurred to me that chopines were hidden underneath women's billowing skirts. In fact, the wearing of tall chopines meant that skirt lengths had to be substantially lengthened and necessitated a significant increase in the amount of expensive cloth needed to make such skirts.  Furthermore, since a woman could not walk far on such pedestals, servants were also necessary. Thus, the wearing of tall chopines was symbolic of a family's wealth and status.

There were many more facts about chopines that I could reveal here, but I'd rather encourage you to go to the exhibition and see it for yourself. Exceptional examples of Renaissance and Baroque footwear have been brought in on loan from museums such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Museo Bardini, Florence; Castello Sforzesco, Milan,; Museum Palazzo and Mueo Correr, both Venice; Ambras Castle, Austria, and the Boston Museum of Fine Art. Although there are a few pairs of very fragile chopines that will go off display on May 5th, they will be replaced with other interesting examples of elevated footwear. The exhibition On a Pedestal continues until September 20, 2010.

The Bata Shoe Museum
327 Bloor Street West (at St. George subway)
Toronto, Ontario Canada