For years, friends and family suggested we visit the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, and for years, I scoffed at the idea. I mean, I'm that interested in a bunch of shoes? I went to a big sneaker exhibit once and hated it.
Turns out I was wrong. On my last day in Toronto, leaving my family to sort through albums of old family photos, I set off on my own to try to live down all my putdowns about it. I'll say it: It's one of the most interesting specialty museums I've ever been to, and it's about much more than just shoes.
And that's despite the fact that it started out to be just about shoes. Sonja Bata, whose husband headed a Czech shoe business that later relocated to Canada, began collecting them in the 1940s out of personal interest. By the 1970s her collection outgrew home space, and was moved to the company's headquarters and then to a rented mall space and finally, in 1995, to a custom-built museum on Bloor Street, Toronto.
In the beginning: These shoes belong to 'Ötzi the Iceman,' a Bronze Age hunter whose mummy was found in 1991 in the Alps.
Along the way, it shifted from being just a lot of shoes to being a tool for looking at human cultures and their diversity, and how objects come to reflect the beliefs (or wished-for beliefs) of a culture, its geography and climate and more. In the Bata museum, shoes are the lens for this examination.
Not to mention, some of them are a lot of fun, as well.
Ms. Bata died earlier this year, only weeks after adding a last pair of high heels to the collection, which now includes over 13,000 pairs coverning over 4500 years and no one can say how many places.
Despite the size and complexity, it's an easy museum to visit. The main exhibit starts at the lowest level of the museum, with a chronological exhibit that wraps around the walls, and blends into a thematic view, looking at religious and cultural meaning of shoes.
Then it's up a grand staircase of shoes and steps to an intermediate area with an exhibit about the museum itself, and then on to the upper floors where changing exhibits and some special subjects are shown. When I visited, the top floor was closed for installation of an exhibit about vogue shoemaker Manolo Blahnik, opening soon, and the staff were all a-twitter about the fact that he was scheduled to open the exhibit in person.
In the meantime, the temporary exhibits included one on clothing from the arctic—of course including shoes and boots—and how different materials and styles developed in areas such as Greenland, Eastern and Western Siberia, Alaska and northern Scandinavia. The similarities were expectable, but the differences were fascinating. The set above is from Greenland, from the late 1890s and early 1900s.
These dazzling platform shoes reflected their owner's status—she could afford the fine work, and didn't have to walk very fast or very far. That's true not only for the Indian set above, but for the pair below, from Renaissance Spain.
And here are two kinds of very specialized shoes. The first dates to late 19th-century China, and were designed to allow upper-class women with bound feet to wear shoes that appeared to follow newly-popular European styles. The other, called sabatons, was designed to protect a knight's feet as an extension of his armor. The length made it easier to avoid falling out of a horse's stirrups.
In a slightly later period, Henry VIII set English fashion in the Tudor age. A man of large physique, he inspired these 'duck bill' or 'cow mouth' boots. At their extreme, some were as wide as they were long. At just after Henry's time, fashion across the channel took a different turn, putting high heels on the men of the court. This pair dates to the court of Louis XIV.
A simpler shoe, made from cloth remnants of clothing, or possibly made to match the clothing, was built for accessorizing with a buckle. I had never realized the buckle was a separate part!
Religion played a role in shoe design, too. The rise of Islam, which requires removal of shoes before prayer as a sign of submission to Allah, gave rise to easily-removed backless shoes such as these 'babouches' popular across the Middle East.
These red velvet shoes belonged to Pope Benedict XV, who died in 1922. At the Vatican, red shoes are reserved for the Pope. Below them, a Jewish ritual shoe. In old tradition, a man is required to marry his brother's childless widow to continue the family. In practice, in more modern times, not. This special shoe is worn by the man; the widow takes it off to free him from the obligation.
Another specialty: these boots were used by Hopi kachinas as part of a dance to call for rain; the blue represents the rain, the hanging flaps the parched tongues of the people.
Nothing religious here: the next two are real workshoes. The scary-looking one is from France's Auvergne region, and was worn to crush chestnuts. The 'moon boots' really are; they were made for Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell. They're a spare pair, though, and never made it into space.
If this boot looks as if it's missing a high heel, it isn't. And if it looks like it would be quite painful for a human to walk in it...well, it would be. It's a special post-surgical boot for cows.
...and then on to a temporary exhibit on gold in shoes, both as a material and as a color. As you might expect: it's not as practical as it is status-enhancing.
And lesson learned: Don't be too quick to dismiss a museum with "Oh, I'm not interested in THAT!..." Although I can't promise I'll never say it again.