Peabody Essex Museum Shoe Exhibit

A new fashion exhibit comes to the Peabody Essex Museum.

Photo courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum


Cinderella and Carrie Bradshaw knew that the right pair of shoes could change your life. Shoes, more than any other thing we wear, embody meaning, status, sex appeal, style, and conflict. They carry us over all kinds of surfaces and can make us look seductive and fabulously invincible, but they can also hurt like the dickens.

Consider the shoes designed by Christian Louboutin and photographed by David Lynch in 2007 for the photo essay “Fetish”: Exquisitely crafted, they render the female wearer unable to walk. Fetish objects with disturbing associations, they incorporate beauty, sadism, sexual allusion, and fashion.

The title of the Peabody Essex Museum’s (PEM) new exhibit sums it up. Shoes: Pleasure and Pain will run through March 12, 2017. Originally organized by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, it features 350 pairs of shoes, including 110 pairs from PEM’s own collection. In galleries sometimes utilizing stacks of shoeboxes, an array of footwear from history and far-flung lands meets today’s high-heeled objects of desire.

“Shoes are masterpieces of design, manufacturing, and engineering,” says Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, PEM’s James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes deputy director and coordinating curator for the exhibition. “Our feet are what ground us and help us move through the world. The shoes we choose are not just about protecting our feet. They project our mood, our identity, and our place in the world. By altering stature, posture, and gait, shoes signal to the world how you feel about yourself and want to be perceived.”

The exhibition features shoes worn by David Beckham, Elton John, Queen Elizabeth II, and Queen Victoria. Especially entertaining is the pair of blue platform shoes that caused Naomi Campbell’s fall on the runway in 1993. There are ornately tooled cowboy boots, padukas from the 19th century, and a pair of Persian slippers with long, curled toes of fantastical proportions. It seems that status footwear often limits the wearer’s ability to walk: One can barely move at a shuffle while wearing the Persian curled-toe slippers.

Today, women teeter in sky-high heels by Manolo Blahnik, Jimmy Choo, and Prada. “A woman in heels is important because she’s elevated,” says Hartigan. “There are many conversations about women viewing shoes as an expression of power.”

Part of the exhibition focuses on the shoe industry that dominated much of the North Shore of Massachusetts throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Examples shown include shoes made in 1893 by Hazen B. Goodrich and Company and a pair dating to 1876 made by Goodrich and Porter. A cluster of shoes by Jacques Heim for Shain’s Shoes was produced in 1960 for Massachusetts residents to wear to John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.

Jimmy Raye, a former Boston Ballet dancer now living in Salem, is a passionate shoe collector; the exhibit includes examples from his collection. Also included are shoes from the Iris Apfel collection. The famed trendsetter has worked with designers to create custom shoes. The last part of the exhibit recreates the shoe closet of another North Shore collector, Lillian Bohlen. The array of boots and shoes is arranged by hue, as Bohlen has them in her showcase closet at home.

“Shoes are about the personal creativity of the designer and the person who wears that shoe,” she adds. “It’s a partnership between two people who likely never meet. You can make something wonderful, but if someone doesn’t respond to it, there is something incomplete about the act. Creation is about communication.

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain runs through March 12, 2017. For more information, visit


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