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Everyone has at least one great story or painful memory regarding footwear. For Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, coordinating curator for the new “Shoes: Pleasure and Pain” exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, there are many, starting at age 10, when fleeing with her family from a forest fire threatening her home, she grabbed two things: her pink teddy bear and a brand new pair of Mary Janes.

Hartigan’s passion for footwear—and her personal stories—punctuate the lively exhibit of more than 300 pairs, ranging from ancient cloth shoes – barely more than a few inches long— intended for women with bound feet to the outrageous platform high heels that caused Naomi Campbell’s infamous runway tumble.

“Shoes don’t just protect our feet—they express who we are and affect how we move through the world,” Hartigan says, noting that the exhibit includes shoes that are functional, like David Beckham’s soccer cleats, as well as pairs that are pure art, like the late architect Zaha Hadidi’s Nova shoe, constructed from rubber, fiberglass and leather, with an unsupported six-inch heel.

The exhibit, organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and augmented by the PEM’s own collection—the biggest and best in the United States—is a joy, with stylish confections from the likes of Christian Louboutin alongside sensible shoes worn by Kate Middleton and the Queen Mother.

“We’ve noticed a growing appetite from our audience to experience fashion as art,” says Hartigan, who notes that the designers went to great lengths to avoid a department store feel to the exhibit, which is organized by themes like transformation, seduction and obsession.

This exhibit is the latest in the museum’s fashion initiative, which started in 2009 with Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel.

Through November 27, the PEM is collecting professional women’s shoes to donate to Dress for Success Boston, which empowers women to be economically independent through a network of support, professional attire and development tools.

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