In your shoes

In your shoes

Fashion forward

In your shoes

If you think footwear is all about comfort, think again. Shoes are more than just a part of your attire, they are indicators of your cultural history. Preeti Verma Lal’s visit to the Bata Shoe Museum revealed some intriguing facts.

Lady Gaga calls shoes her closest companions; she says they are the only things that know exactly what she has gone through in the entire day. Shoes as companions? I beg to differ from the Poker Face singer. I thought shoes were, well, shoes — humble footwear meant to comfort and protect your feet. But the moment I stepped into the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto (Canada), I dragged my feet on my own clichéd shoe definition and its purpose.

In the four-storied museum that resembles a shoe box and across nearly 13,000 shoes on display, footwear suddenly acquired a new meaning: Sabatons were metallic pointed shoes worn as armour in Germany, in France, circa 1800, chestnuts were crushed with crushing clogs that had menacing spikes; getas are shoes worn by Sumo wrestlers as well as apprentice geishas. There’s the Beatle boot synonymous with John Lennon; burgundy high-top Supra Sky Top II sneakers of Justin Bieber; Marilyn Monroe’s red stilettos; black socks worn by Napoleon Bonaparte during his exile in St Helena in 1821; the Nizam of Hyderabad’s fully gold zardozi embroidered shoes embellished with ruby, emerald, diamond and sapphire.

Footwear fetish

This shoe story began when Sonja Bata, wife of Thomas J Bata, the scion of Bata Shoe Company, started collecting shoes in the early 1940s. For decades, she scoured the globe for unusual shoes and set up the Bata Shoe Foundation in 1979 to operate an international centre for footwear research and to house the collection. In 1995, the collection found a permanent home in the Toronto building designed by the famous architect Raymond Moriyama. Today, the Bata Shoe Museum, with its canted walls and copper-clad roof is the biggest and perhaps the only museum in North America dedicated solely to the history of footwear. The three changing exhibitions and one semi-permanent exhibition span nearly 4,500 years of footwear history from six continents. Interestingly, shoes are not merely artefacts stacked neatly behind glass panes; here, they chronicle cultures and tell fascinating stories.

‘The Roaring Twenties: Heels, Hemlines and High Spirits’ focuses on the metamorphosis of the slovenly woman to the New Woman of the 1920s, who easily slipped into fashionable flappers and happily experimented with Art Deco shoes. ‘Beauty, Identity, Pride’ exhibit is dedicated to the Native American footwear — there’s Lakota with stunning bead and quillwork; plateau moccasins has floral motifs in crow stitch; the buckskin moccasins of the Cherokees who used walnut dye to give their shoes a dark hue. One section houses designs by Roger Vivier, Christian Dior’s shoe designer, who reintroduced platform heels; became famous for the pilgrim buckle shoe which became a rage after Hollywood star Catherine Denevue sported them in Belle de Jour; gold velvet shoes with elongated tongue; the Bottine made of silk, satin, lace, glass beads and sequins.

Shoes. And more shoes. That is what Bata Shoe Museum is all about. However, what gets the most footfalls is the Notable People collection where you might not be able to slip into the shoes of celebrities, but you certainly can look at what their wore: Roger Federer’s autographed silver and white court shoes that he laced for the 2005 French Open; blue Adidas running shoes that Terry Fox wore during his cross-country journey in 1981; Queen Victoria’s ballroom slippers; Elvis Presley’s blue patent loafers; Pablo Picasso’s zebra striped boots; monogrammed silver platform boots of Elton John.

Best foot forward

In the Bata Shoe Museum, senior curator Elizabeth Semmelhack was dropping names and juggling numbers. In its 118 years of existence, Bata has sold 14 billion pairs of shoes across 50 countries, and it stills serves one million customers every day. And yes, there was the jargon getting addled in my head. Heels can be kitten, platform, wedge, spool, pencil, spool, Pompadour; shoes could be espadrilles, sling backs, Mary Jane, winklepickers… Oh! So many names! So many types.

I was mesmerised by Semmelheck’s semantics. But I, honestly, was waiting for an ‘aha’ moment — the moment I’d walk into the museum’s storage to look at what probably is the most precious item in the museum: a pair of mojaris belonging to the former Nizam Sikander Jah of Hyderabad. And this is no ordinary camel leather mojaris. It is embroidered with gold thread and encrusted with precious gems. It has apricot coloured silk and velvet lining and silver braids on the wedge heels. The price? Hold your breath. Rs 90 lakh!

But that was not the only ‘Made in India’ shoe on display. In the India section lies an 1840 saffron pair of mojaris worn by a temple dancer in Rajasthan, replete with ornate beads, brass bells and golden zardozi embellishments. There is an 18th century paduka from Jaipur with high stilts and gold toe knobs and a 19th century silver filigreed mule with leaf and vine motifs. Made of pure silver, this perhaps was part of an Indian bride’s trousseau. Not too far from the bejewelled shoes is an ordinary pair of simple thong slippers belonging to the Dalai Lama. Strangely, amidst incredible flamboyance of dazzling shoes, the almost-ascetic simplicity of the Dalai Lama’s slippers is absolutely eye-catching.

In Bata Shoe Museum, shoes slip out of their ordinary purpose of protecting the feet. Here, shoes speak history. Shoes redefine style. Shoes chronicle culture. Shoes tell stories. Shoes are stories.

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