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Walk This Way

By Rakia Achab

Shoes are a basic necessity and a simple concept, but over time they have become a stylish and iconic means to make a statement. They have embodied power, confidence, and even wealth. Styles have changed colors, fits, and silhouettes from one decade to the next.

The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, is showcasing Shoes: Pleasure and Pain from November 19, 2016, until March 12, 2017. The exhibit features an eclectic array of over 300 pairs of shoes that range from historic cultural artifacts to contemporary works of art. Designers Jimmy Choo, Christian Louboutin, and Manolo Blahnik appear in the exhibit, just to name a few. Some of the shoes were worn by British icons such as David Beckham, Sir Elton John, Kylie Minogue, and Naomi Campbell.

“The exhibition includes a fine selection of contemporary footwear, and also historic shoes that were worn at different time periods and come from many different places, such as Turkey, Japan, and Egypt,” said Paula Richter, exhibition and research curator at the Peabody Essex Museum.

Centuries ago, shoes were worn for many different purposes, such as functional necessity, ceremonial dress, or status denotation. Extraordinary examples of historic footwear include the lotus slipper, which was used to bind the feet of young Chinese women in the sixteenth century, and slap sole shoes, which were worn by European men in the seventeenth century. The Peabody Essex Museum hopes the exhibit will resonate with people who understand there is a greater significance behind every piece of art.

“We make choices on what shoes we wear and how they will be presented in public,” said Richter.

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain was first shown in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London before appearing at the Peabody Essex Museum this winter. The Peabody Essex Museum has prided itself on showcasing buzz-worthy topics that spark interest since its opening in 1799. The shoes in the exhibit were carefully selected and required the participation of multiple museum collections, as well as consultations with designers and lenders.

“Staff at the Victoria and Albert Museum developed and organized examples of shoes so that they could highlight design characteristics or certain cultural practices that connect shoes from different time periods,” said Richter.

The exhibit is broken up into three sections: “Transformation and Status” (with subsections All Eyes on Me, Follow Me, The Way You Move, and High Society), “Seduction and Creation” (with subsections Craft and Construction, Explore and Experiment, and Supply and Demand), and “Obsession.” Film clips and videos are also a part of the shoe presentation.

Although the Peabody Essex Museum’s collection of Shoes resembles that of the Victoria and Albert Museum in layout, displays, and selection, it also highlights shoes from local collectors in the Boston area that will not be shown anywhere else. The collection has artifacts by 20 designers from 15 countries, including Germany, Pakistan, Italy, and Colombia.

“In recent years, the Peabody Essex Museum has brought a number of traveling exhibitions to the Boston area...We try to have exhibits on many different topics that pique people’s interest,” said Richter.

In the exhibit, shoe design is explored and boundaries are pushed to create footwear that goes far beyond the norm. Zaha Hadid’s “Nova” has a striking 6.2-inch heel, while Andreia Chaves’ “Invisible Naked” shoes infuse a study of optical illusion with 3D printing and leather-making techniques.

“There is an interesting pair of sandals by Prada called tail light sandals, and they’re imaginative and playful because they are based on automobile design. These Prada sandals were worn by singer Kylie Minogue,” said Richter.

161 Essex St., Salem, (978) 745-9500;

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