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A foot in the past

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If you look at women dressed in 1910, it looks like they are in period costume. But if you look at their style from the 1920s, they could still be wearing what you and I are wearing today, " Elizabeth Semmelhack pauses, "so, have you wondered what must have happened in those 10 years in between to change things so drastically?" she asks, scanning our faces with an air of expectancy.

We are standing at the astounding Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, quite the city of museums and culture, trying to understand social history through, well, heels.

A seriously multicultural city, Toronto does its best to preserve and showcase pop culture. As I have ambled through its downtown area, I have discovered the smattering of comedy clubs and theatres devoted to Shakespeare, Shaw and simply mystery. War Horse, that superb production set around World War I, the toast of London, is now playing in this city with the biggest concentration of theatres outside London and New York. And jaw-dropping dinosaurs are on display at the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum). But amidst all this, really, it is the shoe museum that takes your breath away. And not just because you are a young woman with perhaps a Cinderella-fixation and an inordinate love for all well-crafted adornment for the feet.

The Bata Museum is the biggest and perhaps the only-of-its-kind museum dedicated to footwear in the world. There are more than 10, 000 pairs here, collected, researched and exhibited, and Elizabeth, the curator, is taking us through some of the most prized collections here. We've ooh-ed and ah-ed over a huge monogrammed Louis Vuitton trunk designed to keep tens of pairs, each needed for separate occasions, by women of leisure in more stately times.

We've taken in with wide eyes the celebrity collection: ballroom slippers worn by Queen Victoria, Elton John's monogrammed silver platform boots, Elvis's blue patent loafers, Pablo Picasso's zebra striped boot and looked out for Indira Gandhi's shoes. Then there have been the shoe-stoppers : the 18th century shoes of former Nizam of Hyderabad Albar Ali Khan Sikander Jah, fully embroidered with gold thread and embellished with rubies, diamonds and emeralds. We scarcely dare to breathe in the magnificence as Elizabeth, with a twinkle in her eye, tells us the story of their theft from this very site and almost miraculous recovery.

But really shoes are so much more than the personal circumstances of their owners. Instead, they reflect the social history of an entire civilisation, of thousands of men and women who lived at a common point in time, and tell us in an intimate way of what must be the stories of entire generations.

And that's why the guided tour of the 1920s and footwear styles of the "flapper", decadent, gin-in-bathtubs era becomes a peep into a world full of many other things than just shoes. As more women came into the workforce with the vacancies created by wartime loss of men, as they gained the right to vote, and as they contended with the pulls of two contrary expectations - "being more like a man" and "being feminine enough", it was the heels that gained ground, quite literally.

As we take in a beautifully embellished shoe with rhinestones sewed on to the fabric, tapering towards the toe, with the trendy straps and narrower heels that defined the 1920s look, we finally realise the reason behind specific shoe styles - the Tstrap, bar shoes, embellished shoes - taking off only in that particular decade of American history and not before. For one, with women taking to wearing shorter (often shapeless) dresses, shoes were now a visible accessory for the first time in their history. And shoe designers like Andre Perugia came into their own, with their name spelling luxury quite in the manner of our own Blahniks today. With the stock market doing well and the war being over, this was the time to celebrate - and dance, this being the age of Jazz after all. What better than bar shoes and those with T straps that wouldn't come off while dancing the night away.

I wonder at the social destinies of the papyrus slip-on wearing Egyptian women (those early shoes have been found from the tombs), of medieval Dutchmen in their seriously gigantic clogs, of peasant Chinese girls with feet smaller than children's, and of 19th century chestnut-crushing French people wearing their spiky clogs (an example of strictly functional shoes, if ever there was one) as we go through the exhibits of "shoes through history" - more than 3, 500 years of it. But it is the 1960s Roger Vivier exhibition at another gallery in this museum that has us drooling. Who says the '60s are dead? I would wear those shoes any day.

Vivier, a designer for Christian Dior, has been credited with the stiletto. In fact, he only refined it. (1950s designer Charles Jourdan needs to be thanked for the stiletto, developing the slimmest possible heel on new light pumps with cut toes, curved vamps and enticing "v" shapes. ) But in the 1960s, the bohemian age of Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles, heels definitely got higher and more slender while buckles became plainer but prominent to go with the fashionable mini-skirt. Vivier reinterpreted older "gentlemen's buckles" as the more feminine "Pilgrims buckle" popularised by Catherine Deneuve, still to be found on shoes today. It was the coming of a more modern era. As we take in a pair of blue silk satin "bottines" designed by Vivier, it is with a tinge of envy. If only we could slip them on...for just this afternoon. Because as the designer said somewhere, "To wear dreams on one's feet is to begin to give reality to one's dream. "

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