Exhibit lifts the skirts on feminine footwear

Wed Feb 24, 2010 7:27am EST
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By Natalie Armstrong

TORONTO (Reuters Life!) - Centuries before Sarah Palin and Michelle Obama were sized up over their shoes women's feet had been a platform for showing off their economic and political status.

A new exhibit of more than 60 pairs of rare platform and high heel shoes shows how extreme and impractical footwear became a fashionable symbol of social standing in the 16th and 17th centuries.

"This really is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see these truly incredible pedestals that women walked on," said Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum.

The exhibit, "On a Pedestal: From Renaissance Chopines to Baroque Heels", includes footwear on loan from 11 international museums. It will be open until September 20.

"The shoes themselves, because they were hidden under women's skirts, were not even visible at the time. When you go and look at Renaissance painting you see these incredibly tall women but you can't see the chopines," said Semmelhack.

"We're lifting the skirts of these women and letting you see these accessories that link very closely to economics, gender and politics -- not just high fashion."

The chopine platform shoe is a columnar shape that "rises the wearer up as a single unit," according to Semmelhack. A pair of Venetian chopines in the exhibit is nearly 20 inches tall.

She said the shoes of upper-class women and courtesans rose to unprecedented heights in Italy and Spain during the 16th and 17th centuries. They were used to display family wealth, especially in Venice and Florence where the textile industry was important.   Continued...

<p>Slap-sole shoes, probably Italian, mid-17th century, are seen on display in the "On a Pedestal: From Renaissance Chopines to Baroque Heels" exhibition at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, January 7, 2010. REUTERS/Mark Blinch</p>