Walking and Stepping: A History of the Shoe

Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris


This show traces the history of footwear from the Middle Ages to the modern catwalk, taking in both the well-heeled and the downtrodden. Highlights include a five centimetre-wide soulier into which Marie Antoinette once squeezed her diminutive foot. Find out more from the Musée des Arts Décoratifs’ website.

Preview the exhibition below | View Apollo’s Art Diary here

Shoe belonging to Marie-Antoinette (1792).

Shoe worn by Marie-Antoinette. Photo: Christophe Dellière

This slipper, which belonged to Marie-Antoinette in 1792, measures just five centimetres wide and 21 long – the equivalent of a UK shoe size one today. The question of how the queen’s foot could have fit such a small shoe was the spark igniting this exhibition’s investigation into the history of footwear. Research shows that it was customary for aristocratic women of the 18th century to wear shoes that they struggled to walk in, with tiny feet and small steps used to signify social status.

Shoe for Juliette Récamier (1795-1810).

Shoe for Juliette Récamier (1795–1810). Photo: Hughes Dubois

Shoes for women in the 19th century were often uncomfortably constricting, with pointed toes that required the wearer’s toes to curl up. These lavender silk slippers belonged to the socialite and salonnière Juliette Récamier, and their narrow shape calls to mind an 1805 article in the Journal de Paris that described ‘ladies [who] make […] every effort to shorten and shrink their feel in all directions’, and compared the behaviour to foot-binding practices in China.

Homage to Calder shoe (1999), Benoit Méléard.

Homage to Calder shoe, ‘O’ collection (1999), Benoit Méléard. Photo: Hughes Dubois

A similar disinterest in the requirements of mobility and comfort is evident in this shoe paying tribute to the mobiles of Alexander Calder. Imaginatively applying the principles of kinetic sculpture to design, waves of flickering dots are set off with every (slow) step.

Horseshoes (2006), Iris Schieferstein.

Horseshoes (2006), Iris Schieferstein. Photo: Hughes Dubois

The artist and designer Iris Schieferstein, who describes herself as a shoe fetishist, works with the non-edible remains of animal carcasses that she recovers from butchers. At one point her series of shoes made from horses’ hooves caught the attention of Lady Gaga, who had hoped to wear a pair to an awards ceremony in 2010 but was prevented after the shoes were detained at customs.

Pair of boots (c. 1955).

Pair of boots (c. 1935), France. Photo: Falbalas Collection

The eroticisation of footwear has a long history. Around the turn of the century, the fashion emerged in the West for laced leather boots reaching up to and above the knee, such as this French pair from around 1935. As the exhibition catalogue points out, these shoes ‘mathematically increase the length of time taken to undress’ and correspondingly prolong the state of anticipation – once more, practicality is set aside in favour of aesthetic effects.