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A Personal Collection of Vivienne Westwood Shoes: An Interview with Curator Helen Thornton

If you, like Carrie Bradshaw, are obsessed with designer shoes, then York Castle Museum has the exhibition for you. “A Personal Collection of Vivienne Westwood Shoes” pits Westwood’s modern and wild creations against footwear from the museum’s historical collection dating back to the 1700s. We chatted to curator Helen Thornton about how the exhibition came about, how shoes have changed through the ages and how fashion isn’t functional, it’s a form of art in itself.

Culture Calling: What was the initial inspiration for A Personal Collection of Vivienne Westwood Shoes?
Helen Thornton: In 2016 we created an exhibition called Shaping the Body: Fashion, Food and Life which explored fashion from around 1700 to the present day. The designers that we hired for that exhibition built a simulated catwalk. Then last year we heard of a touring exhibition of Vivienne Westwood shoes on loan from a private lender which was arranged by the Civic in Barnsley. We thought the Westwood shoes would work really well in our costume exhibition space, on plinths flanking either side of the catwalk. Also there’d be that contrast between costume history and high end designer shoes. So that was really the initial inspiration.

Image Credit: Bag Boot. Vivienne Westwood Gold Label. Collection: Winter A/W 2000. Model: Lauren.
CC: As well as Westwood’s shoes, there’s also a display of footwear dating back to the 18th century from your historic collection that has been selected by Vivienne Westwood. How did that come about?
HT: The exhibition obviously started out as a loan from a private lender, but then we got thinking a bit more about our actual footwear collection in the museum, and how it would be a good opportunity to showcase some of that alongside the loan. That led to working with the Vivienne Westwood team and getting them in to curate and choose some of the footwear items that we thought would be most fitting in tandem with the exhibition.
CC: And what guided the selection/ curatorial process? Why were certain shoes chosen?
HT: There was a big cataloguing project we did a while ago so that we knew every single shoe we have in our collection, the history of it and the relevance of it. From that we knew what themes we wanted to explore in this exhibition, and we suggested a shortlist of shoes to the Vivienne Westwood team. The shoes selected weren’t only picked on aesthetic preference and their relation to Westwood designs, but also the historical impact of footwear as well.

Image Credit: Snake Shoe. Collection: Man A/W 2005. Model : Chijioke. © John McIntire
CC: What were these themes that you mention?
HT: Our themes are mainly based off the history of shoes. We wanted to show a natural timeline of footwear. Research revealed that there are eight basic shoe types, so we wanted to show examples of each of these, and also the variety that you can get with shoes to give an overall, broad, example of all of the different types of footwear can you get.
CC: How have shoes changed through the ages?
HT: I could go on and on about this! What I really love is that, especially with our timeline of shoes that we’re showing, we’ve put on display key examples of shoes from 1700 to the present day, and you can look at them together and see how shoes have changed. But it’s not just stylistic evolution. You can also glean other important historical contexts coming through. For example, in the 18th century all shoes were handmade, which was such a time consuming and costly process that the left and right foot were made exactly the same. They were called “straights”. But then by the mid 19th Century, the sewing machine had been invented and was used to make footwear, so you get more mass produced shoes coming through.
I’m also particularly interested in the women’s footwear collection, because by looking at shoes from throughout history you can really see, particularly from those from the 1890s through to the 1920s, how the role of women began to shift and change. For example, the Women’s Land Army boots are such a direct contrast to the delicate shoes of the 19th Century.

A pair of wedding slippers in ivory silk satin with 1 1/2 inch knock on heels. Made by Mayer Julien in Paris, 1865-75. Image Credit: York Castle Museum.
CC: The shoes became more practical so that women could become more active in society? You can’t get much done in a pair of satin slippers…
HT: In the 1890s you began to get women playing more sport, and the health benefits of that were realised. So that manifests itself in our collection, as we’ve got a pair of tango shoes from 1914. So it shows that women begin to move around a bit more, and they are allowed to be energetic. Things like button and bar shoes, with a cross strap, didn’t really come into play until the late 19th Century. They were a much more practical style to allow women to move and muck about in.
CC: Do you have a personal favourite pair?
HT: In terms of the Vivienne Westwood shoes on display, my favourite is a pair of women’s armour boots that are thigh high. They’re made from an armour inspired material, so it’s still fabric but they have the feel of a suit of armour, and they’ve got this big stiletto heel tacked on the end. They’re quite unusual in the fact that they are just so extreme.
And then in terms of our collection I love shoes from the 18th Century, because they are all handmade, and quite different to anything we have today. You can also see how small people’s feet were! It’s amazing that shoes that are over 300 years old have been preserved for so long. We have a pair of ivory satin shoes on display from about 1730, and they’re in absolutely stunning condition. They’re probably my favourite pair.

Pair of ivory white satin shoes with up curved pointed toes and Louis heels. About 1730. Image Credit: York Castle Museum.
CC: You say the exhibition explores “the passion shoes can inspire”. What do you think makes shoes such a special/ personal accessory?
HT: It’s a funny thing, I still haven’t got to the bottom of it with shoes. When I started working here I looked at the shoes in our collection and there was just something about them that appealed to me. It’s a strange contrast because as accessories they’re something that can be so over the top and beautiful, but at the end of the day they’re something you put on your feet, and have to be quite hard wearing. It’s such a strange concept to get your head around that you express yourself by what you put on your feet. But people can feel very body conscious around clothes and fashion, so I guess it might be easier to show your individuality through your choices of footwear, bags and accessories. They’re quite small subtle things that you can use to suggest you have quite an eccentric nature I suppose.
Also, I have friends who (and I’ve done it myself) have bought beautiful pairs of shoes that they haven’t wanted to leave in the box, so they’ve put them on display. They’re almost like pieces of art themselves.
CC: Vivienne Westwood’s shoes claim to “defy wear-ability.” Do you think this sense of relieving the constrictions of function is an important element of making clothes and accessories be viewed as art?
HT: I think if you’re a fashion designer you’re not always thinking about how it will translate into the everyday market. I think Vivienne Westwood sees fashion as more of an art because there always tends to be a sense of drama and romance that comes through in her collections. If you want to make an impact with footwear, and an original statement, you have to be extreme. And that’s certainly the case with her high platform shoes that she showcased in the 1990s. But then again, she’s not the only person to have invented ridiculously high shoes. High, impractical shoes were worn in the late 18th Century, and platform shoes even go back as far as Ancient Greece.

Helen Walsh, Collections Facilitator. Photo by Charlotte Graham

CC: How else can visitors get involved with the exhibition? Can you explain more about the accompanying programme of events?
HT: We have a number of Spotlight Talks with curators, which will be going on throughout the summer. These are small, half hour talks about certain pieces of footwear on display, and giving a bit more information about them that you might not get from the exhibition labels. Also we’ve got our Hands on Here! activities which are run by our lovely volunteers, where visitors can get up close with some of the shoes, handle them and have a different kind of interaction with them. It’s really worth going onto our website where all the upcoming events will be advertised. In addition, if you want to have a look at some of the other shoes in our collection that haven’t made it onto display, we do have our collections published online.

A Personal Collection of Vivienne Westwood Shoes runs until 19 August 2019 at York Castle Museum, Eye of York, York, YO1 9RY