Wednesday, December 7, 2011

If the Shoe Fits, Head to the Museum

For bound feet in China. They're tiny
One of my weekly rituals is reading the New Yorker. An extraordinary magazine, it employs writers who have that near magical ability of taking topics that seems limited on first brush--the career of a man who creates fonts, the life of movie dog Rin Tin Tin--and finding the human condition, in its many and varied shades, contained in them.

A one-topic museum can have that same surprising power when its as well curated as the Bata Shoe Museum ( in Toronto is. Having grown out of a collection of unusual footwear started by a family that manufactures shoes, it manages to reveal interesting tidbits about a number of cultural and historic trends.

For example, when the Anasazi Indians of the Southwest learned how to make pottery, not everything improved in their lives. They stopped making baskets to carry food, lost those weaving skills and their woven footwear became shoddier.

In the 16th century Europe, high heels came into vogue for the first time because they were a way for that era's 1% to say "Look how powerful I am! I'm wearing shoes that are utterly impractical and hobble my movement because I don't have to do any labor!" The more powerful the Lord or Lady, the higher their shoes (it also meant that women had to use more fabrics to allow their gowns to hit the floor, another way to prove one's wealth). Looking at the shoes--and they're reminiscent of something a Jersey Shore gal would wear--and learning about their history you start to wonder (or at least I did), why are we still hobbling ourselves with heels today? What the heck are we trying to prove?

Chestnut crushers!
The shoes are fascinating and often exquisite objects, in and of themselves. A pair with massive, curved talon-like spikes turns out to be a chestnut shelling device from 19th century France (see right).

Another case displays the shoes Roman Catholic Cardinals wear at different times of the year.

And the very first shoe shown is a reproduction of the the first known shoe, found on a frozen body and dating back 5300 years. It looks a bit like a birds nest stuck into a gourd. The wall text thoughtfully explains that scientists recreated the shoes and, as an experiment wore them for several days. You'll be happy to hear that no blisters were formed in the name of anthropology! The shoes were comfy and warm.

In addition to its permanent exhibition on the history of footwear, the museum also has fun exhibits on shoes from the roaring 1920's (most are extraordinarily beautiful) and the moccasins of the Southwestern US and Mexico. For those who like pop culture, the sneakers choices (primarily) of Canada's musical elite--Avril Lavigne, Anne Murray, Michael Buble, Nickleback, the Bare Naked Ladies, and more--are also given the glass case treatment.

Expect to spend a good hour at the Bata to see it all. And it will be a good hour. No, a great one! I promise.

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