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Lillian Daniel

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Lessons From the Shoe Museum

Posted: 02/09/2012 4:40 pm

The Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto bills itself as being "for the curious," and I certainly was. There you can see Shaquille O'Neal's size 20 triple E basketball shoes, and Elton John's platforms as well as Madonna's. (Elton John's had higher heels, but then again, he did less dancing.)

The celebrity shoes paled in comparison to the history section of shoes decorated through the ages, some practical, some beautiful and some downright strange. In the Renaissance, women wore these odd sandals that were also platforms of a very different kind, like a flip flop mounted on a thick and flat metal base, seemingly impossible to walk in, but beautifully engraved. Did anyone get to see those shoes under the long dresses? Did they delight the wearer or cause her bunions? We'll never know.

More disturbing were the shoes made for the bound feet of Chinese women. Once a custom of the wealthy, by the time of the Han dynasty, foot binding had reached the majority of women. Their feet cruelly wrapped since childhood, grown women were left with painful petite pods. Particularly heartbreaking was a pair of tiny farming work boots for bound feet. Some poor woman was out in the fields working in those, hampered and crippled by the fashions of the day, truly bound by forces beyond her control.

I was struck by how long human beings have been torn between practicality and beauty. In some rare cases, they pulled off both, as was the case with a pair of Cherokee moccasins covered in hand sewn glass beads hundreds of years ago. They looked both beautiful and comfortable, something to delight both the wearer and the world. But do we always have to strike that balance? As Marilyn Monroe's bright red stilettos bear witness, sometimes the extremes are what we remember most.

In the end, I hope that the great Artist of the universe, allows my life to include both practicality and beauty, but guards me from ridiculous excess. Unless that particular pair of shoes is on sale, of course.

 

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