FIT’s new exhibition “Shoes: Anatomy, Identity, Magic” challenges our relationship with shoes
While shoes are sometimes overlooked in fashion history, they are a staple in our wardrobe that transport us metaphorically and literally through life.
Step inside FIT’s new exhibit, “Shoes: Anatomy, Identity, Magic,” which explores our physical, social, and psychological relationships with shoes. From September 1 to December 31, visitors can view works chosen by museum director Dr. Valerie Steele and costume and props curator Colleen Hill, including more than 300 pairs of shoes from the museum’s 5,000.
“Frequently [past exhibitions] do shoes by designer, or a retrospective of a designer, or a show focused on one type of shoe,” says Steele. “We wanted a slightly different approach.
Through the perspectives of anatomy, identity, and magic, one is able to gain a holistic understanding of western women’s shoe fashion from the 18th century onwards from the exhibit. Staged in the museum’s basement gallery, it opens with baby shoes, chronicling how our lives begin with fitted shoes. A looping video of scenes from various films, such as ‘Sex and the City’ and ‘The Devil Wears Prada’, plays in the background, highlighting moments when shoes leave an indelible mark on culture popular.
“We really wanted people to think for themselves; we kept our texts to a minimum. Essentially, it’s up to the viewer to think about what the shoe choice says about them,” Hill explains.
The first section, titled “Anatomy”, explores how shoes affect the physiology of our feet, influencing how we move. The irony is that many shoes are actually not designed to fit us. Take, for example, Noritaka Tatehana’s 18-inch “point shoes” (the same model worn by Lady Gaga in her video, “Marry the Night”): these surreal elongated platforms are neither conducive to walking nor ease of movement. A towering five-inch Walter Steiger heel looks just as intimidating to wear, but it’s ergonomically correct because the heel tip lands just below the center of the heel bone. Other highlights in the anatomy section include a Pierre Cardin molded leather shoe with toe-like ridges and a zebra-print Manolo Blahnik pump that shyly exposes the wearer’s toes. The goal is to get viewers to look closely at these elements, consider whether or not they would wear the shoes, and examine their own physical relationships with the shoes.
The second section, “Identity”, revolves around our tendencies to associate shoes with different types of people. Conservatives ask the question: “Shoe are you?
“With clothing in general, shoes have become more of a personal choice,” Steele said, noting that shoes now come in a wide range of price points. “In the past it was about whether or not you could afford shoes, so it was much more prescribed. Now there is choice.” (A Birkenstock tells a very different story than a high heel, for example.)
With greater choice comes greater distinction in styles, each conveying a different message about identity. One wall is dedicated solely to designer shoes, allowing wearers to identify with the elite world of haute couture. We see how some look to the past for inspiration; Azzedine Alaïa’s patent leather boots, for example, are a modernized take on a more practical 20th century style, reflecting how closely our fashion identities are tied to past iterations.
Scroll to continue
This includes sneakerheads. For the fashion beasts, the exhibit features a fair amount of coveted sneakers, including a pair of Nike “Air Jordan I” sneakers and a Bathing Ape “Bapesta” sneaker from 2002.
The final section, “Magic,” taps into our perception that the right pair of shoes can endow you with enhanced skills or powers. A pair of Nike Air Jordans evoke athletic abilities, while a pair of ancient Greek winged sandals made in 2022 reference mythology and evoke the magical abilities of flight.
Shoes are also physical manifestations of our enchantment with fairy tales. We see a pair of Andreia Chaves wedge shoes made of glass and 3D-printed nylon as a nod to the Cinderella story, as well as a pair of demure red Moroccan leather flats that reference “The Red Shoes” by Hans Christian Andersen.. “
Magic plays an equally important role in our shopping experience. According to Steele’s creative vision, the center of the main exhibition is designed as a shoe store. Pairs of glamorous heels sit in candy box-shaped displays, enticing the viewer to try them on.
“From the start, I wanted to do something with a shoe store in the middle of the show…that power and charm of shoes and shopping for shoes,” Steele said. The store reveals how shoes are often objects of desire: we envision that our lives can change if we simply find the right pair of shoes, imbuing the shopping experience with a degree of magic.
Clever curatorial choices are made throughout the exhibition. Sometimes there are very obvious pairings, like a men’s and women’s version of the Christian Louboutin Dandy Love slippers. Other times, interesting juxtapositions create historically rich and visually exquisite comparisons, such as Louboutin’s “fetish ballerina” pumps residing alongside Alberto Guardiani’s “lipstick” heels, demonstrating how high heels consistently favor vanity over practicality.
“Shoes: Anatomy, Identity, Magic” is revealing in many ways. We are reminded that shoes are essential to our daily lives, yet they are so often neglected. In fact, they have physical, social and psychological importance. A visit to the exhibition will not only give you a better understanding of the cultural zeitgeist of a given decade, but also give you a better understanding of your clothing choices.
“Shoes: Anatomy, Identity, Magic” at the Museum at FIT in New York runs from September 1 through December 31.
Stay up to date with the latest trends, news and people shaping the fashion industry. Sign up for our daily newsletter.