Arts & Culture

Footwear fetish: Exhibit at Auburn’s White River Valley Museum a platform for women’s shoes

In a corner of the White River Valley Museum in Auburn perches a pair of white satin pumps. They’ve got sequins all over them, toe wedges several inches high and impossibly thin heels teetering even higher. They’re stunning, like something Lady Gaga would wear to stab someone in the face, and one wonders — who on earth would wear these? And where? The answer turns out to be a museum staff member, who wore them at her wedding to measure up to her 6’6” husband. It’s just one of the many fascinating stories in “Sole Obsession: 100 years of women’s shoes,” the WRVM’s latest temporary show that surveys women’s dress shoes from 1910-2010, and covers some nifty history points along its super-stylish way.

As with every temporary show in the museum, it occupies just one small room — but in a way, that’s just fine for a shoe show. Arranged enticingly on clear double shelves like a shoe store, the shoes stretch around the walls in chronological order, paired occasionally with period dresses from the museum’s collection and given context with informative texts, historic advertisements and cases of accessories. At the end — or the beginning, if you’re under 10 years old — is a dress-up corner with a trunk full of hats, scarves and delightfully high heels to put on.

With around ten pairs of shoes per decade, “Sole Obsession” gives some breadth to each fashion movement. The shoes begin in the early 20th century: prim lace-up boots, impossibly narrow for today’s female foot but a lot more fashionable than just plain black and brown. There’s a gorgeous two-tone leather pair, and fascinating taupe suede boots with an open, sandal-style lace-up front from Seattle store Baxter and Baxter. The 1920s bring in dance shoes, as women get more liberated: ballet flats, T-straps, and way more decoration, like glitzy gold brocade or intricate beading. Things get tougher in the 1930s, with more women doing more practical work: plain, workaday pumps in heavy satin, with the fancy Louis heel giving way to the wedgy Continental.

By the 1940s things are getting more creative, despite the war (thank you, Dior): a pair of kelly-green suede slingbacks with peep-toes and a wedge, alligator skin, coloful brocade. The accessories cabinet is a nice touch from curator Christine Palmer, showing scratchy-looking pre-war nylons along with buckles, garters and shoe forms. By the 1950s the shoes are getting their feminine groove back, matching peach tones with the era’s narrow-waisted dresses and sporting metallic blues with feathers Audrey Hepburn would love. Surprisingly, the 1960s collection is demure, though still including a classic white Twiggy-style ankle boot and some transparent Lucite sandals with daisies on them. But the 1970s are wonderfully crazy: four-tone pumps (orange, aqua, yellow and apple-green), pink metallic gladiators, vermillion wedges and some giraffe-print thrown in.

Then it’s the ‘80s, and here’s where you realize what’s missing from the show: non-dressy shoes. While it would have been nice to see some working-class boots from the 1910s, they might not have looked all that different. But street wear like Doc Martens define the punk-riddled ‘80s, and it’s weird not to see them. Instead we have power-pumps, with pointy heels and toes, super-high stilettos and gaudy bows and flowers. It’s the same thing in the 1990s, when all that Spice Girls footwear — chunky high boots, hightops, knee-high Roman laces — are conspicuous by their absence, giving way to designer fetishes like the B&D minimalist Manolo Blahniks, the pink lace D’Orsays or star-studded black heels on shiny golden pumps.

Finally, the 2000s, with their wild mixture of retro styles from tall lace-up boots (significantly wider, now) to gaudy weaves and those impossibly tall white sequinned Gaga-esque pumps. “Sole Obsession” might be lacking in street style, but it more than makes up in the fancy department. Nuggets of historical information — like the Dutch-Guianan inventor of the machine-made shoe form — give context without overwhelming, and the museum’s docents can chime in with their own experiences. And Palmer ties in cultural norms, like the sexuality of shoe terms (vamp, cleavage, breast), making these shoes a lot more thought-provoking than their original owners ever imagined.