Shoes: Pleasure and Pain at the V&A

The V&A’s new exhibition Shoes: Pleasure and Pain reveals the varied, bizarre and often uncomfortable history of footwear from around the globe.

Positive Luxury spoke to senior curator Helen Persson about the exhibition, fast fashion and her biggest influences.

Image of Helen Perrson, Senior Curator Shoes: Pleasure and Pain

Helen Perrson, Senior Curator V&A, June 2015


Where did the idea for Shoes: Pleasure and Pain come from?

The idea came from seeing the opulently decorated 19th century shoes for the Indian elite in one of the V&A stores, and realising that the message these shoes were conveying about the wearer was the same: “I am wealthy and privileged enough to not care for functionality or practicalities of normal life, such as working or even walking.”

What do you hope the exhibition will achieve?

I hope visitors will be impressed by the range and quality of the shoes in the exhibition, but also surprised by the cross-cultural similarities – linking the past to the present, Far West with the Far East, and to contemplate their own shoe choices.

Image of Parakeet shoes by Caroline Groves from Shoes: Pleasure and Pain at the V&A

Caroline Groves (b.1959) ‘Parakeet’ shoes. Photography by Dan Lowe


Which pair of shoes were you most excited to get your hands on?

I must admit that I was very excited when a pair of richly metal thread embroidered slip-on shoes arrived from Skokloster Castle, Sweden arrived.

The shoes once belonged to the King Erik XIV of Sweden (1533-1577) and this is the first time they ever been outside Sweden. So unique and precious indeed.

Are there any that you could see yourself wearing in your daily life?

Even the most extreme shoes on display were made to be worn, and there are several that I would not mind wearing, but I think I would most likely walk away in Marilyn Monroe’s very plain white leather mid-heel pumps – just because they were hers but also they are such good all-around shoes, and in my size.

These days, fashion is so often fast and disposable. Do you think this kind of exhibition can help to change consumer attitudes towards the lifespan of their purchases?

The exhibition does not primarily discuss, nor explicitly raise the issue of sustainability, but it is something we within the team have discussed.

The exhibition does look at the shift in consumerism and production of shoes in England, with the influx of cheaper products from East Asia.

How can shoe brands do their bit for people and planet?

Shoes are a bit trickier to recycle than other accessories, due to their multiple parts and variety of materials. Many shoes contain plastic components, and as those of course are oil-based, also raises ecological issues.

Ideally, shoe brands should not over mass-produce their products leaving a shoe mountain behind, using natural material from ecological and sustainable sources.

Image of Christian Dior shoes by Roger Vivier from Shoes: Pleasure and Pain at the V&A

Roger Vivier (1907—98) for Christian Dior (1905—57) Evening shoes Beaded silk and leather France, 1958—60 V&A: T.149+A—1974. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


What’s the best part of your job?

The best part has been meeting and getting to know the most talented shoe designers, the skilled craftspeople and enthusiastic shoe lovers.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

Choosing the final selection of around 250 pairs of shoes has been one of the most challenging aspect of my job. The V&A holds an extensive footwear collection – Western and Asian – encompassing around 3,000 pairs spanning 2,000 years of history.

I have also explored several private and public collections worldwide. Choosing the right pair of shoes for Shoes: Pleasure and Pain was not always easy.

The shoes had to convey specific messages, to illustrate the story I wanted to tell but also being aesthetically pleasing and interesting, and in a good condition.

image of Shoes: Pleasure and Pain at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London


If you aren’t working, where can you be found?

In the cinema, gym or vintage shops, and usually in Chelsea Physic Garden on Sundays.

Who has been the greatest influence in your life, and why?

My paternal grandmother. I spent most of my childhood with her, being taught sewing, knitting, weaving etc.

Do you support a charity or cause, and why?

WWF – I support tigers. I find it important to help protect endangered species, to keep nature’s diversity.

What is your personal luxury?

A cup of coffee on my porch early summer mornings.

What steps do you take to make your life more positive?

Enjoy and appreciate little things and don’t take life too seriously.

The V&A’s Shoes: Pleasure and Pain exhibition, sponsored by Clarks, Agent Provocateur and the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers, runs until January 2016. 

Josie Tutty

Digital Content and Social Media Manager, Positive Luxury