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SHOES: Inside Out

Historic shoes and boots from Hampshire Cultural Trust’s nationally important collection are the focus of a fascinating exhibition revealing our relationship with footwear. From the utilitarian to making a statement, essential sports kit to defining an entire decade and much more besides, the story of shoes is far from straightforward.

Kicks, sneakers, daps, trainers, wellies, daisy roots: We have created almost as many urban slang terms for footwear as there are different styles and uses. As Hampshire Cultural Trust’s new exhibition SHOES: Inside Out will reveal, what you wear on your feet says a lot about you, from your line of work to social status, leisure pursuits and aspirations in life.

Courtsey of Hampshire Cultural Trust

Containing around 70 pairs of shoes - the majority of which were made in the 19th and 20th centuries – SHOES also features several very early objects, including a bone skate from the Anglo-Saxon period (10th to 11th century) that was found in Winchester and a child’s shoe (c1680), discovered in the chimney of a Hampshire home.

Four stunning pairs of shoes, some with matching pattens dating from the early 1700s, also feature in the exhibition. Key shoe styles from the 19th century through to the present day are reflected, along with early 18th century heels, late 19th century moccasins, a Chinese lotus shoe (c1880) and Manchu shoes (dating similarly).

Other objects on display include a WWI officer’s trench boots, early 20th century clogs and boots, galoshes, waders, callipers, riding boots, dance shoes (including a pair from c1925 in the flapper style and Gamba ballet shoes) with the second half of the 20th century represented by 1940-50s utility wear, army boots and shoes, 1950s stilettos, Brothel Creepers and platform shoes that became synonymous with popular culture in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Other items reflect the needs and influences of sport and leisure pursuits, including ice skates, roller skates, baseball and basketball boots from the likes of Converse and Nike.

A small selection of the shoes has been specially X-rayed and will be displayed alongside the corresponding objects to uncover their construction, developments in design, or reveal an ethereal reminiscence of a life lived. In each themed section, visitors will discover surprising new dialogues, sparked by bringing different styles together, from different cultures and centuries.

The show will also reveal some surprising facts about the evolution of various styles. For example, high heels - often considered emblematic of a woman’s personal power - originated in Assyria around 700BC, when high-heeled riding boots coincided with the invention of the stirrup, enabling male soldiers to sit more firmly in the saddle and hold heavier weapons. Elizabeth I wore them in an effort to emphasise her princely masculinity, a theme made famous by her speech at Tilbury, in which she claimed: “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.” In contrast, the traditional cowboy boot – with its stacked leather heel designed to keep riders comfortable throughout long days in the saddle – is an item of workwear redolent with masculine associations. Over time however, it has become a far more androgynous fashion choice. More extreme examples of high-heeled boots show how they have also been fetishized in the name of style, with increasingly vertiginous heels causing crippling pain and restricting movement as part of a strange dichotomy in which the wearer is both physically elevated and limited at the same time.  

Among the boots featured in the exhibition, WWI officer’s trench boots demonstrate how their owner needed a practical footwear solution for the dirty conditions in which they lived and worked, while expensive materials or the fragility of their construction, evident by a pair of 19th century purple silk velvet boots, expose an uncomfortable truth, that their original owner regarded themself as above getting dirty or cold. In this instance, utility has been wholly appropriated by fashion. 

The march of high-end designers (pun intended) is acknowledged by a pair of studded Louboutin stilettos and a pair of shoes made by British fashion icon, Mary Quant. Other famous labels featured in the exhibition include John Galliano, Biba and Liberty.

“The story of shoes is not always straightforward. Conformity to gender stereotypes is blurred, power statements conceal repression, and the utilitarian merges with the frippery,” says  the exhibition’s co-curator Claire Isbester.

Co-curator and Visual Arts Exhibition Manager at Hampshire Cultural Trust, Tara McKinney Marinus adds: “Highlights from our collection will be presented through a number of themes; Work, Play, Protect, Identify, Empower, Transform and Aspire, to explore how shoes are a powerful signifier of the wearer, but also how their form and function allows us to explore broader cultural issues.”

SHOES: Inside Out. Courtesy of Hampshire Cultural Trust

SHOES: Inside Out is on at The Willis Museum and Sainsburys Gallery from 2 February to 1 May 2023.

News article supplied by Hampshire Cultural Trust. January 2023.

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