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This New Museum at FIT Exhibit Explores Our Relationship With Shoes Throughout the Centuries

The Museum at FIT (MFIT) has unveiled an exhibition made especially for shoe lovers.

Opening tomorrow, Sept. 1, and running through Dec. 31, the exhibition, called “Shoes: Anatomy, Identity, Magic,” explores the physical, social, and psychological relationship between humans and shoes.

Curated by Dr. Valerie Steele, MFIT director and chief curator, and Colleen Hill, curator of costume and accessories, the exhibition features more than 300 of the 5,000 pairs of shoes, boots, sandals, and sneakers in the museum’s permanent collection.

The exhibition begins in the introductory gallery, which features a vignette of baby shoes to illustrate how shoes are a part of people’s lives even at the beginning. This is followed by a chronology of shoes from the 18th to 21st centuries, along with a viewing booth that features clips from films and television shows that explore the symbolism of shoes in popular culture. The themes of anatomy, identity, and magic are then explored in the main gallery, culminating in the replica of a shoe shop displaying high-fashion shoes.

The theme of “anatomy” emphasizes how few shoes are shaped like feet and how that plays into how people move differently when they wear sneakers rather than stilettos. Other styles like peep-toe shoes and thigh-high boots also draw attention to different parts of our anatomy.

The Museum at FIT, Manolo Blahnik
Manolo Blahnik, stiletto-heeled pumps, zebra printed pony skin, 1998, England. Gift of Manolo Blahnik.
CREDIT: Courtesy of The Museum at FIT

In an exclusive walkthrough with FN, Steele points out a pair of zebra-printed pony skin stiletto-heeled Manolo Blahnik pumps from 1998 as an example of this notion. She notes that the shoe features an extreme “toe cleavage” opening, which Steele pointed out subliminally mirrors that of a woman’s breast cleavage. “Even sling-back styles and back cut-outs are sort of unconscious sexual innuendos being made,” Steele said.

Other sexy styles in the “anatomy” section include the 2014 black patent leather “Fetish Ballerine” pumps by Christian Louboutin, and the spring 1998 red patent leather and silver metal stiletto-heeled pumps from Tom Ford’s Gucci.

The Museum at FIT, Shoes
A look at the designer archive of some of the top brands in the world at the Museum at FIT’s latest exhibition.
CREDIT: Eileen Costa

Next, the theme of “identity” aims to emphasize how different shoe styles and brands are thought to express important information about one’s age, gender, social status, sexuality, and taste. Shoes are arranged in pairs for visitors to compare and contrast.

Within the “identity” theme, there is a section of designer shoes from Azzedine Alaïa, Jimmy Choo, Charles Jourdan, Nicholas Kirkwood, Charlotte Olympia, Iris van Herpen, Roger Vivier, Prada, Perugia, and Pinet, which according to Steele was the first “commercially known” shoe brand.

Finally, the theme of “magic” emphasizes how we may unconsciously believe that the right pair of shoes will change our lives. Take for example Cinderella’s glass slippers that can capture the attention of a prince. This is painfully illustrated by a 1992 sculpture from artist Camille Norment which quite literally is a shoe made of glass. A pair of silver leather pumps with crystals and rhinestones from Jimmy Choo are a safer bet.

The Museum at FIT, Shoes
Winged styles and Nike Air Jordans seen to evoke a “magically” emotion at the Museum at FIT’s latest exhibition.
CREDIT: Eileen Costa

This section also points out the influence professional athletes have on the sneaker market, as illustrated by a pair of Nike Air Jordans seen in the movie “Like Mike,” which saw Lil’ Bow Wow wear these sneakers to magically enhance his basketball skills – just like Michael Jordan.

Asked what she wants visitors to learn and take away from this exhibition, Steele said she wants people to “shop” the show and explore which shoes they would have worn and why during various periods of history. “Some people may have a dialogue on why they would never wear certain shoes, while same may want to break the glass to have these shoes for themselves,” Steele said.

“But ultimately, this show is about the physical, social and psychological appeal of shoes. So we just want people to think about their own shoes and why they choose to wear what they wear,” Steele added.

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