Exhibition | The Great Divide: Footwear in the Age of Enlightenment

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on March 8, 2021

Woman’s Shoe, 1730–40, English (Toronto: Bata Shoe Museum). One way working women acquired footwear was through the cast-off clothing given to them by the people they served. These ‘gifts’ would often be altered by the new wearer. This shoe originally had thin latchets that most likely were tied with a bow over the tongue but were updated to feature more fashionable straps by a later wearer.

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From the press release (12 August 2020) for the exhibition at Toronto’s BSM (the museum is currently closed, but stay tuned). And a very happy International Women’s Day to everyone!

The Great Divide: Footwear in the Age of Enlightenment
Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, 12 August 2020 — 28 February 2022

The Bata Shoe Museum is excited to announce its newest exhibition, The Great Divide: Footwear in the Age of Enlightenment. The first of three exhibitions in the museum’s 25th anniversary lineup, The Great Divide explores several timely issues from gender and race to imperialism and colonization. Featuring extraordinary 18th-century artefacts from the permanent collection, the exhibition highlights complex stories about privilege, oppression, danger, desire, revolution, and resistance that are as relevant today as they were 300 years ago.

The Age of Enlightenment was a period in European history from the end of the 17th to the end of the 18th century when Western philosophers and scientists wrestled with concepts of ‘human nature’ and ‘natural rights’. Some argued that all people had inherent social and political rights, but many more advocated for the reordering of social hierarchies using ‘scientific’ proof to divide people through the identification of ‘natural’ differences such as gender and race. Much of the oppression and imperialism that marked the period was supported by these ideas.

“Throughout the 18th century, Western fashion, including footwear, was central to the ‘naturalization’ of difference in Europe,” says Elizabeth Semmelhack, Creative Director and Senior Curator at the Bata Shoe Museum. “Distinctions between men and women, children and adults, Europeans and ‘Others’ became increasingly codified through clothing. Yet, European fashion was also used to blur the lines between classes as social mobility and access to consumable goods grew as a result of imperialism.”

The exhibition was thoughtfully designed by the award-winning designers Arc + Co who focused on creating a space that engages with the powerful themes and issues of the 18th century explored in this gallery. With loans from Toronto’s Gardiner Museum, the design also includes a look at contemporary footwear, asking visitors to reflect on shoes and society today.

Highlights include:
• Moccasins said to have belonged to Myaamia leader Mishikinawa, also known as Little Turtle, who resisted the incursion into Myaami territory by delivering one of the worst defeats in U.S. history at the Battle of Wabash in 1791.
• Late 18th-century shoes that began as Indian jutti but were transformed into a pair of English women’s shoes that embody British Imperialism in India.
• An early 18th-century silver side-saddle stirrup made for a woman from a powerful colonial Spanish family in Peru. Roughly 85 percent of the world’s silver was mined by conscripted Indigenous people and imported enslaved Africans in Spanish-held South America.

Man’s Shoe, 1760–80, English (Toronto: Bata Shoe Museum). This shoe would have been used to express both gender and class. Its low heel conveyed that it was masculine and the expensive fabric and ostentatious bow conveyed that it was upper class. The use of pink might confuse us today, but in the 18th century pink was not gendered.


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