If you’ve ever doubted whether footwear can ascend to art status, look no further than the Mint Museum’s newest exhibit, “Pumped: The Art & Craft of Shoemaking,” which walks visitors through the evolution of footwear from the 1700s through today.
The 102 pairs of shoes on display (all part of the Mint’s vast fashion collection) move in chronological order, beginning with a silk damask pair with intricate buckles from the early 1700s and continuing through today’s sought-after Jimmy Choos and Louboutins.
Curator Rebecca Elliot has done more than simply demonstrate the evolution of fashion styles and construction techniques; she explains how footwear fit into specific time periods and points toward where it’s headed in the future.
“The point of the show is to get you to think about how shoes are made and how that’s such a specialized craft,” says Elliot, herself a longtime shoe aficionado known around the museum for her stylish feet. “It’s just as involved and specialized as any of the crafts we show here.”
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Emphasis is on construction and artistry throughout the exhibit, with tools and diagrams devoted to putting the design and assembly of shoes into historic and cultural perspective. But some shoe lovers will simply enjoy gawking at the embellishments, heel styles and labels. (It’s impossible not to wish you could try some pairs on. We were itching to free one black pair from its case – its heels seemed to float in midair, thanks to creative cantilevering.)
Nine pairs you won’t want to miss:
A pair of Steve Madden high-heeled basketball shoes covered in intricate beading by Kiowa Indian artist Teri Greeves in 2010 illustrates issues of cultural identity. “She’s the product of an Indian mother and an Italian American father, so she kind of has her feet in both camps, literally,” Elliot says. “She identifies with both those cultures and so she explores the issues of identity in her shoes. That’s why on those shoes you see a traditional Kiowa dancer and on the other side you see a contemporary Indian basketball player with their Indian braids.” These shoes tell a story unlike any other pair in the collection, with the goal, Greeves writes in notes alongside the shoes, to educate the viewer “even if only subconsciously, to the fact that we, as Native people, exist in the here and now and not as caricatures and stereotypes but as real and multifaceted human beings.”
You can picture Queen Anne wearing these silk and damask ladies shoes, which date back to the early 1700s and would have been worn by a woman of wealth, Elliot says. Buckles were an important fashion accessory (the one seen here is adorned with jewels) and were interchanged between shoes depending on how formally a woman was dressing that day. Many women had more shoes than buckles and would move the buckles around from shoe to shoe.
High heels had nearly disappeared and most shoes were uniformly shaped (no left and right foot distinction) by the time these shoes were made in the early 1800s, as society became more democratic and citizens wanted to appear on level ground with one another. But this pair (made from silk, linen, leather and wood) was clearly different because the shoes have a slight heel and were “crookeds,” meaning they were custom made to fit the left and right feet.
It’s easy to zoom right past these pieces of black embroidered cloth, but take a moment to pause at the corner case that houses them. These unassembled shoe pieces dating back to the early 1800s illustrate the cottage industry of embroidery done by many women in the home. A remarkable detail: instead of using embroidery floss, the floral designs here were done with softened and dyed porcupine quills for additional dimension.
The modest fashions of the 1800s gave way to the “all-eyes-on-me” flash of the roaring 1920s, as women stepped into heels like these from New York’s Miller and Sons made from metallic and silk thread. Their design echoed the art deco architecture shapes prevalent at the time, with rich colors and bold shapes. Hemlines were rising, so these heels would have been prominent and worn to get attention.
Perhaps for Joan
“Mad Men” costume designers would likely have salivated over this pair of evening shoes sold at Saks Fifth Avenue around 1965. The uppers were covered with stripes made from grosgrain ribbon, and the heels embellished with rhinestones and multicolored teardrop shapes were certainly designed to catch attention as the wearer walked away, Elliot said.
We zoom up to the present with these “Mutatio” shoes from 2015, created using both traditional and state-of-the-art techniques, including 3D printing of the towering honeycomb-style platform sole printed by Rock Hill-based company 3D Systems. The pattern for the intricate platform was created by digitally modeling strings tied in knots, then inverting the images to create a network of positive and negative space. The leather upper is manufactured in China and then shipped to the U.S. to be assembled.
To Dior for
Carrie Bradshaw (a la “Sex & the City) would have fallen in love with these glamorous turquoise Dior leather sandals from the early 2000s thanks to their splashy color, glass beads, crystal rhinestones and silk satin ribbons. The ribbons harken romantically back to the flat ballet-style shoes of the 1800s, Elliot says. The heel, moved more toward the center of the foot than the back of the heel, made for an intriguing shape, and the beading on the vamp (toe) and quarters (heels) lend extra flash. “These are definitely shoes that would get you noticed,” Elliot says.
These avant-garde shoes are from MelFlex PVC plastic. The left and right shape are not exactly the same, but “they are practical and very wearable even though they are an unusual shape,” Elliot says. “I think the color and the wedge shape just give them a very elegant, very modern 21st century look.”
How well do you know shoes? (If you just want the answer, go here):
Want to go?
“Pumped: The Art & Craft of Shoemaking” is on display at the Mint Museum Uptown, 500 St. Tryon St., through July 31. Special exhibition admission is $24 for adults and is required for the exhibit. (Your special exhibit ticket will also get you into “Here & Now: 80 Years of Photography at the Mint.”) Students, seniors and children pay reduced rates. mintmuseum.org