When I visited Toronto for the first time this spring, one of the places that I spent some time exploring in was the BATA Shoe Museum. For those who have never been, it is about an 8 minute walk down the street from the Royal Ontario Museum, and a convenient skip over from the Museum subway stop. For someone completely uninitiated in the city, the fact that it was so easy to find was definitely a deciding factor in my decision to check it out.
Boy am I ever glad I did! Before going, I really didn’t know anything about the museum or what its exhibits would be about, but from the first exhibit to the last, the BATA is now my favourite museum that I have ever visited. Even if you aren’t interested in shoes or fashion history, don’t let that stop you from going. What I love about the BATA is that shoes are actually just the vehicle through which they explore a wide variety of important and interesting moments in history and the people carrying out their lives from all walks of life in all different types of footwear.
My absolute favourite exhibit that I saw during my visit, and one of my favourite exhibits of all time, is called “Standing Tall: The Curious History of Men in Heels.” This exhibit did everything I could ever ask from a museum; it explored the history of men’s footwear with the intention of pushing the envelope both in terms of what museums do and the conversations that can be inspired by museums, as well as in how we think about our own society and gendered expectations.
This exhibit explores the origins of men wearing heels throughout Western culture, explaining that while men wore heels from as early as the 17th century up to today, the nature of the heels they wore, and the statement intended by wearing them changed dramatically over time. With each of the rises in men’s heels in fashion came a concerted effort on the part of the men wearing them to assert perceptions of their masculinity in a deliberate and essential way.
The exhibit begins not with the origin of men’s heels, but rather with questioning the visitor’s preconceived notions about men who wear this style of footwear:
“[G]iven the advantages that height supposedly confers from higher pay to increased desirability as well as the long history of men in heels, the real question is why don’t the majority of men wear heels today? Indeed the most curious thing about men in heels may be our current cultural distress over the subject.”
In particular, I greatly appreciated that cultural movements such as Glam rock were included in the exhibit. This is completely down to my own biases and musical tastes. I, like many, though perhaps unlike many my age, have been a huge KISS fan since I was 13 years old, so the idea of men in heels and makeup being hyper-masculine was not such a foreign concept for me.
“Some of the highest heels in the 1970s were associated with Glam rock. Started in the U.K., Glam rock was characterized by male musicians who wore outrageous stage outfits including high heeled shoes. They gave commanding performances and were portrayed in the media as being the focus of female adoration serving to suggest a continuity, rather than a break, with traditional ideas concerning gender.”
The exhibit points out that in this period, while men were favouring heeled shoes both in music and in everyday life, their shoes had distinct, separate heels rather than solid platforms, which were considered to be more feminine. While this may be considered to be feminine by today’s standards, men who wore heels in the 1970s were doing so in an explicitly unfeminine way, an aspect that is repeatedly emphasized throughout this exhibit.
It was the First World War which actually shifted Western ideas and comfortability with men wearing heeled footwear:
“In the first half of the 20th century, male stature became a cultural focus. World War I had increased anxiety about preparedness for war and spurred interest in genetics as it related to fitness and strength. Pseudo-scientific ideas promoted Darwinian concepts of the survival of the fittest and height was linked directly to strength as well as sexual attractiveness. In this milieu, heels for men became problematized and men who wore them became the focus of ridicule.”
Heels did not return for men again until the 1960s, where it became a reclamation of animal behaviour and asserting masculine dominance in nature. Known as the Peacock Revolution, men who were part of this movement argued that it was their right and responsibility to dress flamboyantly – much like male peacocks and other males of the animal kingdom who use colour and big display to attract mates and express their maleness.
I wonder how much of this movement was as much class-driven as it was a reclamation of a performance of masculinity? Dressing flamboyantly not only allows you to play the role of the male peacock, strutting around and glorying in your own vanity, but it also implies that you are someone with the ability to dress flamboyantly. You do not have to be practical in your everyday dress – indeed, you can be large and bombastic, over-the-top, and perhaps even frivolous. Even for men who might have performed this kind of masculinity using cheaper products, the immediate visual effect and impression of your value and character would be the same.
While this exhibit does follow a basic chronological timeline, it does not force you to move through it chronologically, and there is no fixed start and end point or right and wrong way to go through it. It is set up so that the majority of the exhibit displays run along the walls in a circle (square), but with displays in the middle as well, so that when you enter the exhibit space you are free to follow whatever catches your attention, which for me is particularly important. Because the exhibit is not strictly chronological, you can feel free to move organically through the space, and the information in the exhibit moves organically with you. Visitors can follow concepts and ideas of masculinity over time, or weave back and forth through the ebb and flow of these changes.
One thing that this exhibit did lack was interactivity. Ultimately there was nothing that visitors could actually engage or play with. The exhibit relied entirely on text and artifacts. While I personally think that this exhibit is fantastically well-written and well-produced, interactivity is something that I believe is hugely important for all museum spaces. Regardless of how good an exhibit may be, and in my opinion this one is exceptional, I will always be critical of exhibits that do not attempt to engage visitors in a variety of ways, and in this instance the exhibit misses the mark.
That being said, I strongly encourage anyone and everyone to check out this exhibit, whether you have an interest in shoes or not. At the risk of continuing to gush, or spoil too much about the exhibit for you, I will leave you with the same food for thought that I ended my walk through this exhibit with.
“Will the heel every become a non-gendered accessory? In recent years, celebrities such as Lenny Kravitz and Prince along with Kanye West and a few other fashion-forward men have been willing to take chances wearing footwear with visible height, but not without garnering criticism. Montreal-born fashion designer Rad Hourani, famous for having the first unisex collection at Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week often put his models, both men and women, in heels. Hourani’s high blocky heels remain borrowings from the male rather than female wardrobe but his designs do reflect the increasing gender fluidity in our current society and suggest perhaps someday we will no longer talk about men’s heels or women’s heels, but instead simply refer to them as heels.”
You can check out more information about the exhibit here, which will remain on display until November 22, 2017: http://www.batashoemuseum.ca/standing-tall/