“I want you all to close your eyes.” Sonja Bata, the 88-year-old founder of The Bata Shoe Museum is addressing a roomful of press. Canada’s fairy godmother of shoes wants us to imagine what stood on the very site of the Museum’s Bloor Street location over 20 years ago. “A gas station.” Hardly the state-of-the-art artifact storage and exhibit space here today.
Since its opening on May 6, 1995, The Bata Shoe Museum has become North America’s foremost shoe museum with one of the world’s finest collections. If what we put on our feet suggests our attitudes on life, then consider the history of shoes a fascinating sociological exploration. Footwear illustrates entire ways of life, providing insight on climate, religions, professions and attitudes to gender and social status of different cultures through the ages.
Yes, you can tell a lot about someone from their shoes. Over the past 20 years the Bata’s collection has grown to over 13,000 shoes and related items spanning 4,500 years of history.
And I thought I had a shoe fetish.
The Bata kicks off (shoe pun!) a yearlong anniversary celebration this week with a fundraising gala, a public celebration and a new exhibit Standing Tall: The Curious History of Men in Heels.
You read that right. Men. In. Heels. Used to be the boys loved wearing heels and no one minded. It’s only in the last few decades that Western culture has been unable to find masculinity in shoe height.
Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator, explains how the research for this exhibit has been a remarkable exploration. “For me personally, it has been unraveling a long history of the high heel and proving that heels were first worn by men in the Near East for horseback riding, and that European men happily wore heels for the first 130 years of their use in Western fashion.”
The Bata also features a number of permanent and rotating exhibits such as Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century. Turns out the phrase “fashion victim” was not the result of some red carpet accident. People actually died in the 1800’s as a result of wearing shoes made with poison-laced dyes and highly flammable materials.
Those blisters from your new Jimmy Choos pale in comparison now, huh?
Expect plenty more to come this year including an appearance by distinguished guest lecturer Dr. Martin Roth, Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London at this year’s Founder’s Lecture on November 12th. The Museum’s second anniversary exhibition, True North: Traditions and Technologies of Arctic Survival, will open in February 2016.
I wonder where our relationship with shoes is going, now that sites like Shoes of Prey, which allows customers to design their own shoe, are in vogue again.
“Historically shoes were, to some degree, a collaboration between customer and shoemaker.”
“I am actually fascinated by this trend,” remarked Elizabeth. “Historically shoes were, to some degree, a collaboration between customer and shoemaker. Industrialization erased the presence of the indiviual maker, and customers were required to find footwear that suited them from the range of ready-made shoes. It is interesting to me that the trend towards shoe customization is in many ways reviving age old practice.”
For more on the Museum’s ongoing celebrations including a public event Saturday, May 9th, visit batashoemuseum.com. Stay tuned for pics and stories from the Bata’s Twentieth Anniversary Gala event in an upcoming profile on luxury event planners Candice & Alison.
Exterior shot of The Bata Shoe Museum courtesy of @izsarah.