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Commentary: Shoes can have artistic value too and St. Louis has its share

Nancy Kranzberg

Shoes and footwear have a long history varying from culture to culture and have been designed not only for comfort but often have an artistic flair with added elements such as buckles, bows and beads such as those used in Native American moccasins. Most of us have heard the infamous expression about St. Louis--First in shoes, first in booze and last in the American League. St. Louis has a rich history in the production of shoes. Companies such as Brown Shoe, now Caleres, and International Shoe Company helped our city to grow and put us on the map.

As an integral part of human culture and civilization, shoes have found their way into our culture, folklore and art. Think of "The Old Woman in the Shoe," “Cinderella” and Dorothy's red shoes in "The Wizard of Oz." And think of wedding shoes and "hard shoes to fill."

Shannon Meyer, Senior Curator at the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center says, "The Missouri History Museum has many shoes made and sold by many local companies including Swope, Brown Shoe, Peters Shoe, and Friedman-Shelby--just to name a few. We have shoes as old as the 1830's, which were made on straight lasts without a discernible left or right foot."

There are shoe museums such as The Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, Canada which has over a thousand shoes and related artifacts (from a collection numbering over 13,000) in architect Raymond Moriyama's award-winning five story structure.

The Bata celebrates the style and function of footwear in four impressive galleries. Footwear on display ranges from Chinese bound foot shoes and ancient Egyptian sandals to chestnut-crushing clogs and glamorous platforms. Over 4,500 years of history and a collection of 20th century celebrity shoes are reflected in the semi-permanent exhibition, "All About Shoes." 

Listen to these great titles of shoe exhibitions at The Bata, "Standing Tall: The Curious History of Men in Heels," “Fashion Victims: The Pleasure and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century," and "Killer Heels: The Art of the High Heeled Shoe."

"Killer Heels," a travelling exhibition comprised of shoes from several museums contained more than 300 years of women's elevated shoes. The show featured both historic and stunning heels by Prada, Alexander McQueen, Jean Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, Christian Louboutin, Ferragamo, Manolo Blahnik and more.

Samantha Cataldo, exhibition curator of "Killer Heels" at the Currier Museum says, "High heels are probably the most talked about fashion accessory. You can't help but make a statement wearing them because their structure has a way of affecting the wearer in both a physical and psychological way."

An exhibition at The Victoria and Albert Museum in London was titled "Shoes: Pleasure and Pain." The exhibition looks at the extremes of footwear from around the globe, presenting around 200 pairs of shoes ranging from a sandal decorated in pure gold leaf originating from ancient Egypt to the most elaborate designs by contemporary makers. It considers the cultural significance and transformative capacity of shoes and examines the latest developments in footwear technology creating the possibility of ever higher heels and dramatic shapes. Examples from famous shoe wearers and collectors are shown alongside a dazzling range of historic shoes which have not been displayed before. 

And The Vienna Shoe Museum owns a comprehensive collection of rare exhibits from many centuries. Not only the riding boots of Emperor Franz can be admired, but also those soccer shoes in which the legendary Viennese soccer legend Matthias Sindelar shot goals for Austria's "miracle” team of the 1930's. 

And back home again, show designer Chris Francis creates one of a kind shoes by appointment only, and custom sized shoes for every client. With a laundry list of celebrity customers, Francis now has the ability to really dive into each and every pair he makes, finding inspiration in every aspect of his life from his favorite books, to the music he listens to, to a flea market find, he creates shoes like an artist. It was this reason that the Craft and Folk Art Museum reached out to him to talk about the art of shoe making. The result was his first solo exhibition of his life's work. 

The museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology in a show called "Shoe Obsession" featured footwear designs ranging from the extravagant to the extreme. 

Vincent Van Gogh painted several still-life paintings of shoes in his "Paris Period" and while in Arles placed a pair of shoes within a spatial context. Not only can the setting be identified, but  perhaps the owner, himself, can be identified. This painting hung in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. 

The Bata museum also featured an exhibition entitled "The Rise of the Sneaker Culture." That's an entire other three hour commentary.

Well, not to be too "corny," I don't know if I should say, If the shoe fits wear it--you might wind up at the hospital.

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for more than thirty years on numerous arts related boards.

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