There’s an old saying that goes: “Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes”. The saying refers to, of course, understanding someone’s life experiences before casting judgment. But when spending a few hours visiting the Bata Shoe Museum, located at the intersection of Bloor Street West and St George Street in downtown Toronto, the saying takes on a whole new meaning.
This museum specializes in the history of humanity and footwear while looking at the most primitive ways that mankind has used to protect their feet from the rough terrain and the elements. The museum also explores how various styles of shoes displayed cultural, social, and financial status as well as gender representation throughout history. Exploring a museum focused on shoes may not seem like the most interesting way to spend an afternoon for those not passionate about fashion. But do give the Bata Shoe Museum a try; the look at cultural and societal history alone is fascinating and intriguing. If you love museums, you should see this.
The aptly shoe-shaped building has four levels for browsing. Stairs are available as well as elevators to make the exhibits accessible. The first level is downstairs in the basement and features Bata Shoe Museum’s flagship exhibit All About Shoes: Footwear Through the Ages that delves into 4500 years of shoe history. From ancient bearskin sole with deerskin frames held together with twine and filled with grass to keep feet away from the ground to the excruciatingly uncomfortable Chinese era of foot binding; from gladiatorial sandals in the Coliseum to King Henry VIII’s more cloven boots in his armor. The history covered in this exhibit is astounding. When the exhibit turns to more modern styles of shoes, it turns into Fashion Afoot that looks at the various shoe styles of the 20th Century and examines how styles from such fashion powerhouses as Prada have evolved over the years. For the pop culture and celebrity inclined, there is Footprints on the World Stage that features iconic footwear from Hollywood celebrities like Madonna or Marilyn Monroe, television shows like Mad Men, and other cultural and political icons like author Margaret Atwood, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, the Dalai Lama, and sports stars.
Other galleries feature on the upper levels. A wonderful new exhibit further explores shoes and gender norms by delving into the history of men in high heels – Standing Tall: The Curious History of Men in Heels. In modern society, shoes with height are a staple in women’s fashion but it was not always so. From royalty who demanded a bit of additional height to their stature to military footwear, cowboy boots, biker boots, and celebrities – like Lenny Kravitz and Gene Simmons – with larger than life personalities who don the shoes to match, this exhibit breaks gender and fashion norms in revealing and eye-opening ways. Standing Tall is a very fun exhibit to explore.
Art & Innovation: Traditional Arctic Footwear explores not only the footwear but also the outerwear meant to withstand the harshest of cold conditions. Thick, bulky boots that reach up to the thighs made with animal skin, lined with fur, and sealed with animal fat meant that feet and legs were protected against the elements while utilizing the entire animal that had been hunted. Natural dyes gave the boots and garments individuality and identity with certain styles and colours incorporated to differentiate gender. A parka liner made from cleaned seal intestine sewn together with sinew and grass is both shocking yet mesmerizing. This exhibit is visually stimulating and engaging – something you’re not likely to forget.
The uppermost floor houses Fashion Victims: The Pleasures & Perils of Dress in the 19th Century that focuses in particular on the upper class socialites at the time, the only ones who could afford such finery. Not only does this gallery feature the fine and delicate ladies’ footwear of the time made of fine silk and rich with embroidery but the resplendent gowns with full billowing skirts are on display as well. For the male counterparts, their shined and gussied up patent leather boots and perfectly tailored suits. This is the pleasure portion of this particular exhibit, the perils comes with the realization of how narrow the shoes actually are, for men and, in particular, for women. Every woman, regardless of age, had child-like feet or they all squeezed their feet painfully into these tiny narrow shoes for the purposes of aesthetics. It’s like Chinese foot binding all over again. The undergarments reveal painfully constricted corsets made of bone and heavy cages to create the illusion of the full skirt paired with a tiny waist. It’s clear why fainting rooms were popular in the day. On top of it all, poisonous dyes and highly flammable materials were used. This is a morose yet captivating reminder of the downfalls of vanity.
A trip around the Bata Shoe Museum can take around two to three hours on average making a visit a fun addition to a day exploring Toronto’s great attractions. Operating hours are Mondays to Saturdays from 10 am – 5 pm, Thursdays from 10 am – 8 pm, and Sundays from 12 pm – 5 pm. Admission is $14 for adults, $12 for seniors 65+, $8 for students with ID, $5 for children ages 5-17 and free for children under 5. Family passes are available – $24 for one adult and up to four children under the age of 18 and $35 for two adults and up to four children under the age of 18. Thursdays are Pay What You Can to enter between the hours of 5 pm to 8 pm. Various special events occur at the museum throughout the year, see the website for more details. If you’re looking to explore a different side of history not often given the spotlight, give the Bata Shoe Museum a go.
Review and Photos by Samantha Wu