The BLOG: Culture

Shoes: Pleasure and pain

Hop, skip, jump or hobble if you must, but do take in the Peabody Essex Museum’s debut of SHOES: PLEASURE AND PAIN!

It’s an imaginative collection of cobbler’s dreams, courtesan’s kicks and high society heels. Organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum of London the event walks PEM guests through centuries of footwear. Music and videos compliment four galleries of global-glam telling the story of fashion and function with a perspective that also includes an homage to New England’s once landmark footprint in the shoe industry. Before exploring the primary themes of Transformation, Status, Seduction, Creation and Obsession that dominate the museum’s “shoe salons” a scarlet rush of stiletto’ed lust welcomes PEM guests with a motorized monument to shoe-ology’s raciness.

The second-floor gallery suite opens with a thoughtful balance of foot-ware’s larger societal function playfully displayed within a high-heel shaped,ceiling scraping arrangement of stacked shoe-boxes. It’s presence invites visitors to contemplate messages revealed by the stride of our soles. Before the tour begins guests celebrate Cinderella’s glass-slippered fantasies, David Beckham’s soccer sneaks, and satin ballet shoes made to be worn in a 1948 movie interpreting Hans Christian Anderson classic “The Red Shoes”. In that film a young woman is punished for dreaming of more than a woman of her time should want.

Devotees of these feats of ingenuity are encouraged to contemplate the art, functionality, and implicit psychological statement derived from 

Entrance - motor stiletto (Photo by Diane Kilgore; posted with PEM permission)

the foundation of our attire. Floor mirrors symbolically contrast the shoes and boots of visitors with those featured in the show. Through-out civilization foot-wear has projected a cultivated image, a personal identity, capable of transforming stature literally and figuratively. Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, PEM’s James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes Deputy Director and coordinating curator for the exhibition shares charming anecdotal reminiscences of her own relationship with shoes by adding quotes to salon walls. For her, “The shoes that we choose for walking are not just about protecting our feet. They project our mood, our identity and our place in the world.”

The full-scale story-telling of this exhibition includes more than a foot-note’s worth of examples of ancient society’s complicit endorsement of female foot-binding with latter-day explorations of bondage. Seduction being part of the allure of shoes, a satin bed showcases a shoes-tory of Geisha’s, prostitute’s and starlet’s costumed collection of emblematic foot-ware that borders on fetishism. As a soundtrack of The Cure’s “Let’s Go To Bed” glides into Barry White singing “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love” a cursory tracing of erotica’s path reveals how primal our relationship with shoes has always been.

Creation and Obsession is the last of the quadrangled exhibits. Along with a nod to royal and red-carpet preferences it’s a closet of indulgences from collector Lillian Montalto Bohlen, fashion icon Iris Apfel, and Boston’s late-great social maven Marilyn Riseman. The last cloister revisits what fashion was, is and is morphing into as the vectors of creativity collide with technology.

A 3 D study, by New York based Sebastian Errazuriz, of printed thermoplastic polymers translates ideas into objects. His project entitled Twelve Shoes for Twelve Lovers sculpts personal meaning into woman’s foot-ware with the fanciful language of a provocative tongue and cheek artist. His collection of works include “The Jetsetter”, “The Cry Baby,” and” The Hot Bitch” each representing in-shoe-form a woman of his past. Last year, Errazuriz collaborated with a Brazilian manufacturer to produce “The Gold-Digger” and “The Boss” for limited sale in New York, London and São Paolo. Resonating with many, the shoes quickly sold out.

An ongoing series of activities will include: a pop-up sneaker museum, an adult shoe sketching clinic, a fashion lecture with local stylist to the stars, Cynthia Carr Gardner and Jimmy Raye, a former ballet dancer and collector of fashion, as well as DIY tap shoe-making to compliment the exhibition. Details are available at or by calling 978-745-9500.

SHOES: PLEASURE AND PAIN is on view November 19th,2016 through March 12,2017. Coinciding with the headline exhibition is a shoe drive to help empower disadvantaged women. In a partnership with the Dress for Success Campaign the PEM will welcome conservative shoe donations at the entrance from Wednesday, November 16-Sunday, November 27.

Additional information regarding the shoe drive with Dress for Success is available at

The Peabody-Essex Museum 161 Essex St. Salem, Massachusetts is free to Salem residents, and kids 16 and under.
Open Tuesday-Sunday 10am-5pm / Open until 9 pm the third Thursday of every month.
Closed Mondays ( except holidays) and Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years’s Day.