“Shoes: Pleasure and Pain” at the Peabody Essex Museum is Pure Pleasure

By Gwen Walsh


Upon entering the Shoes: Pleasure and Pain exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), you are immediately confronted with a giant high heel sculpture made out of 700 shiny black shoe boxes. Already, it is clear that this will not be a boring exhibit of row after row of illuminated shoes in display cases, as one may assume, but rather an experience of the object as art. And the audience is not, as one may assume, a mass of women oohing and ahhing over Manolo Blahniks, but rather a diverse group of museum attendees, all ages and genders and backgrounds, who have in common the fact that they are all wearing shoes.


One of my favorite parts of the exhibit is a set of display cases in the very first gallery which includes angled mirrors on the base, so that the reflection of the viewers’ footwear is just as much on display as the artifacts behind glass.


November 19th marked the opening event for the exhibit, which included a variety of activities for both children and adults, most of which took place in the museums bright and modern atrium. I enjoyed watching Malika Green, a professional shoe designer who works out of New York City, as she molded different colors of dyed leather around a wooden form to create authentic mule-style shoes, as well as an unwearable pair created solely for the sake of art.


Beyond her work station was a display of designer sneakers, some of which were available for hands-on exploration. This was a smart way to engage children and viewers who might be skeptical of an exhibit about fashion – the sneakers are accessible, in that they all maintain a recognizable, wearable shape, but are also purely aesthetically pleasing. One pair was adorned with beautiful iridescent wings, while others were classic vintage basketball shoes in mint condition.


My favorite part of the workshops offered during the opening celebration, which was funded by the Lowell Institute, was a short tap dancing lesson and performance by local professional dancer Ryan Casey.


Shoes: Pleasure and Pain was originally exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the PEM is the first American museum it has traveled to. The 6 galleries which make up the exhibit are beautiful, including a large room with high ceilings decorated like a Hollywood regency style living room, complete with an interpretive chandelier, and period appropriate footwear arranged around the walls. One of the pairs in this room that I was excited to see is the rainbow wedge sandals designed by Salvatore Ferragamo in 1938 for Judy Garland; Technicolor inspired and sky-high, they are decades ahead of their time.


It was fascinating to see the historical range covered in the show, from Chinese foot binding, to platform sandals worn by the geishas of 18th century Japan, to flapper-era tap shoes, 60’s go-go boots, and of course the iconic red-soled Louboutin pump of today.


There are shoes which were worn by famous people, such as Elton John, Queen Elizabeth, Cinderella, and Kate Middleton, and one display includes a picture of ancient Chinese ruler wearing a pair of velvet platform boots which are at the front of the case; I enjoyed seeing them both in person and in their historical context.


I thought the most beautiful shoes in the show were a pair which is, shockingly, made out of real parakeet wings (see below). While this seems strange at first, we don’t think twice about leather shoes, so this medium makes the viewer question what is a normal material. With their interesting silhouette and soothing color palette, they are actually very wearable while also being quite experimental.


The last gallery focused on private shoe collectors, which I didn’t find particularly interesting, though there was a set of 12 shoes by designer Sebastian Errazuriz which for me had the strongest fine art appeal of the show. Both graphically and conceptually interesting, the shoes were 3-D printed, and each represented a former lover from the artist’s past, including The Boss (adorned with a dangerously spikey heel and brass knuckles), Honey (made out of a honeycomb-like material), and The Cry Baby (a shoe seemingly made out of split milk). 


With over 300 pairs of shoes on display, videos of dancing and catwalks, and a section on footwear construction, there’s plenty going on to keep every viewer interested. The day I visited the galleries were crowded, and the audience was abuzz with opinions and observations. Throughout my tour, I heard several people including myself, say “I want those shoes!”


In addition to Shoes Pleasure and Pain, the PEM has a lot more to offer, including a merchant house from the Qing dynasty which was brought from China, an exhibit on Native Art of the Northwest Coast, and Double Happiness: Celebration in Chinese Art, among others.



Shoes Pleasure and Pain will be on display at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA through March 2017. See www.pem.org.