Today’s footwear designers should take some notes from those who came centuries before them — because it is the manufacturing techniques of yore that will likely stand the test of time.
“Contemporary designers’ use of synthetic materials is problematic because chemical contents can render the materials self-destructive over time,” explain Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Kaye Spilker and Clarissa Esguerra, who’ve curated “Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear,” a new exhibit on display through Aug. 21 that surveys men’s fashion spanning from 1715 to 2015.
The presentation at LACMA, curated from its archives, is one of the most comprehensive historical menswear collections around. Featuring 200 ensembles, it examines how cultural movements over the past 300 years affected men’s dress, shoes, hats and more fashion.
Below, FN chats with the exhibit’s curators in a joint interview conducted via email on the heels, highlights and history of men’s footwear.
Q: What are the challenges in finding and acquiring historical footwear?
A: We find that — more so than in womenswear — men’s historical footwear examples are not readily available. Many of our examples on display have been in our collection for decades. This could be that men’s footwear may have been used more and therefore is not in particularly good condition, or that it was not considered as important as women’s shoes and not kept as keepsakes.
Q: How has the historical footwear been preserved ahead of LACMA’s acquisition — and how does LACMA currently preserve the pieces?
A: By families or fashion dealers. We preserve it in temperature and humidity controlled storage, packed in acid-free materials.
Q: In terms of durability, can you explain how the designer’s use of raw materials and skins over time affected the footwear’s sustainability?
A: In traditional footwear, durability can be affected by the use of particular dyes (which may deteriorate them), or for leather and wood, the lack of humidity, which dries out the material. Contemporary designers’ use of synthetic materials is problematic because chemical contents can render the materials self-destructive over time.
Q: How did you determine which modern designers had footwear that was influential enough for the exhibit?
A: We are an art museum, so we generally collect for sculptural quality or for adventurous designs which draw inspiration from historical antecedents.
Q: Some of the early period shoes had buckles and not footwear from that respective era. Can you elaborate on the availability of acquiring those shoes? What’s the significance of buckles and other ornaments in early century footwear?
A: Eighteenth- and 19th-century footwear is extremely rare. However, metal buckles of the time have remained. We wanted to present fully dressed ensembles that were as accurate to a historical era as possible using as many extant objects as we have in the collection. Thus, we had prop shoes made in period style in order to better display the buckles and complete the silhouettes.
The significance of highly ornamental buckles was to display the relative worth of the wearer, as with any jewelry.
Q: How did fit, size and comfort evolve over the span covered in the exhibit?
A: Both men and women wore “straights,” which were shoes without a left or right designation and were not comfortable until they were worn in. This did not change until the early 19th century. The earliest sneakers were from the late 19th century, when rubber was available.
Q: The high heel has been the bane of women’s fashion. What kind of agony — if any — have men endured in footwear over time?
A: As Elizabeth Semmelhack of the Bata Shoe Museum has illuminated, the heeled shoe really began in menswear with horseback riders who used the heel and the stirrup to steady themselves while using a bow and arrow while riding. We do not have commentary on the degree of comfort. However, in the 300 years we cover in Reigning Men, we should note that both men and women had heeled shoes in the 18th century and flat shoes in first half of the 19th century.
Q: What is the most significant piece in the collection?
A: It is impossible to determine this — we apply various criteria for different objects. A standout piece in the exhibition is a pair of early 19th century boots with an exquisite nail head design at the soles. However, this pair was likely for exhibition rather than for true wear.