If the Shoe Fits


Imelda Marcos’s were maligned, Michael Jordan’s were initially fined, and a scullery maid turned princess famously left one behind. Today on Museum Bites were kicking up our heels in honor of shoes. From flip flops to ski boots our footgear helps us scale mountains, run marathons, perform pirouettes, and flaunt our pedicures. Join me for a look at some of the quirkier shoes I’ve come across in my travels. We begin in the snowy Alps…

Football Cleats, Kristallwelten, Photo by cjverb (2009)
Football Cleats, Kristallwelten, Photo by cjverb (2009)

Striking Shoes:  I stumbled across these glittering football (soccer) cleats while touring Kristallwelten, a dazzling crystal museum nestled in the snowy Austrian Alps. More pretty than practical, these sparkly cleats are tricked out in thousands of Swarovski crystals. I was under the impression these blingy boots were just for show. However, while researching this post, I discovered footballer, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had a pair of Nike Vapor VIIIs covered with 4,000 Swarovski crystals. For a mere £2,500 ($3,440 US dollars), Aubameyang’s striking cleats included his initials, number and club crest. Fortunate for his opponents and teammates, he switched to a regular pair of cleats for the official game. No doubt a swift kick from these bejeweled beauties would have been glaring and painful. If you’d like to see more of my tour through Kristallwelten, which includes a Giant’s Head, a Geodesic Dome, and the Dangerous Willie, click on this Museum Bites: Crystal Clear post.

Tribal Shoes:  Our next set of shoes is both decorative and functional. Traditional Native American moccasins are made of deerskin or soft moose, elk or buffalo leather. They often feature exquisite beading as well as fringe, cuffs and porcupine quills. Design was based on function, climate, and readily available materials. Native American tribes could be identified by the style and type of moccasin they wore. Great Plains tribes like the Lakota typically wore hard-soled versions. Apaches living in the desert Southwest wore moccasins with a turned-up and reinforced toe to protect the feet from pointy objects like cacti.

I came across this lovely pair of Iroquois moccasins at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Made of buckskin, wool, cotton, porcupine quills, and delicate glass beads, they were most likely worn on special occasions. Note the difference from these durable Lakota moccasins on display at the Michigan State University Museum. Click on this Wyoming State Museum Beautiful Shoes link to learn more about the fine art of moccasin making.

Cruel Shoes:  Our next pair of shoes is cute but cruel. They once held bound feet, a brutal practice that began in 10th century China. Court dancer, Yao Niang ignited the fad when she bound her feet in the shape of the “new moon” so she could dance on her toes. The look caught on and soon Chinese women and girls were clamoring to attain ridiculously small feet. A three-inch foot fell into the coveted golden lotus category and was highly prized on the marriage mart. Runner-up four inch feet were tolerable and deemed silver lotuses. But the poor girls measuring in at five inches or longer were considered ogres. These huge hoofers were typically relegated to a life of ridicule and spinsterhood. Keep in mind a standard deck of cards is 3 ½ inches long.

Natural vs. Bound Feet (1902), Photo by G. G. Bain, Library of Congress
Natural vs. Bound Feet (1902), Photo by G. G. Bain, Library of Congress

To achieve these outrageous lengths, young Chinese girls between the ages of five and six had all but their big toes broken. The toes were then curled under their feet so they would lie flat against the sole. Each foot was subsequently bound and the young girls were encouraged to walk so their arches would break. Note the pointed tip on these shoes was designed to fit their big toe. Foot binding fell out of fashion in the late 19th century, during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911).

Haunting Shoes:  The horrors continue with our next set of shoes on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Atrabiliarios (1993) by Doris Salcedo is a haunting exhibit representing the shoes of Colombia’s disappeared. During the 1960s Colombia suffered a violent military coup and thousands of citizens were abducted and murdered.

Atrabiliarios, Detroit Institute of Arts, Photo by cjverb (2017)
Atrabiliarios, Detroit Institute of Arts, Photo by cjverb (2017)

While traveling through the Colombia countryside Salcedo listened to the stories of survivors.  She discovered that many of the women who perished were typically identified by their shoes. Atrabiliarios features pairs of shoes encased behind thin sheets of animal tissue. These opaque windows are framed by uneven sutures, a grim reminder of this tragic chapter of Colombia’s past.

Dutch Clogs, Amsterdam, Netherlands, Photo by cjverb (2014)
Dutch Clogs, Amsterdam, Netherlands, Photo by cjverb (2014)

Steadfast Shoes: Our final pair of shoes is the staid and sturdy klompen, the go-to footwear of the Dutch. Originally hand-carved, the oldest Dutch clog dates back to c1250. These wooden stompers were so popular back in the day, each village had its own clog maker. Like moccasins, clog design varied by region, profession and occasion. Decorative clogs were crafted for weddings, often sporting symbols denoting love, trust, and hope.

Wooden clogs eventually fell out of fashion in favor of lightweight leather footgear. Today, only 30 clog makers exist and the wooden klompen is sold primarily as a souvenir. Several years ago I was fortunate to visit one such cobbler. In true Dutch style, my family and I took a scenic bike tour along the canals to his farm where he entertained us with a demonstration of cheese and clog making. Click on this Clog Museum link to learn more about these iconic shoes. This fascinating collection includes roller skate, high heel, and diamond encrusted clogs.

Fort Rock Sandals, University of Oregon Museum of Natural & Cultural History, Photo by Ian Poellet, WikiMedia Commons
Fort Rock Sandals, University of Oregon Museum of Natural & Cultural History, Photo by Ian Poellet, WikiMedia Commons

Fun Footwear Fact: The oldest known footwear was discovered in Fort Rock Cave in 1938. Buried under volcanic ash, this simple pair of sandals dates back more than 10,000 years. Crafted from woven sagebrush—an aromatic plant belonging to the daisy family—these sandals not only protected a pair of ancient feet, they also masked any foot odor. They are on display at the University of Oregon Museum of Natural & Cultural History.

Still mad for more shoes? Check out the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto—a bucket list destination! They have a collection of over 13,000 shoes. Click on this Bata Shoe Museum link for a preview.

That wraps up our tour of fancy footwear. Next week we’ll be taking a look at an ancient and mysterious ballgame. In the meantime, have a great week!


Bata Shoe Museum


Clog Museum

Detroit Institute of Art


Michigan State University Museum

Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

Museum of Modern Art


Smithsonian Magazine: Why Footbinding Persisted in China for a Millennium by Amanda Foreman (2015)


The Atlantic: The Peculiar History of Foot Binding in China by Matt Schiavenza (2013)

University of Oregon Museum of Natural & Cultural History

Wyoming State Museum

YouTube: Kristallwelten


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