Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Postcards from Toronto: The Bata Shoe Museum

My first destination in Toronto was the Bata Shoe Museum, two blocks from our hotel. (This was before I discovered the black squirrels.)

As you can see, it's housed in a sleek building that makes references to a shoebox with a lid:

Photo: The Bata Shoe Museum.

Inside, there's a collection of 13,000 shoes, ranging from prehistoric booties (insulated with grass) and ancient Egyptian sandals to Adam Sandler's ordinary sneakers (he shot a film in Toronto) and Sarah McLachlan's gold Banana Republic flats (she's Canadian).

The ethnographic and historical collections are more interesting than the celebrity shoes, although I paused for a moment a single Chelsea boot that belonged to John Lennon... and not simply to wonder where its mate was.

The special exhibitions and collection galleries are extravagantly and whimsically designed. One had a stepped wall filled with glass display cases that was so elegant that I didn't realize it was also a working staircase leading to another gallery — until I went upstairs by another route and found the rest of the show. (I can't blame jet lag this time, but I'd gotten up at a horribly early hour to get to the airport.)

There's a large collection of beaded and embroidered Native American shoes, this being Canada.


The silk shoes above are just a few inches long — designed for aristocratic Chinese ladies who'd had their feet bound. Fortunately there were no photos of their feet. But the shoes were poignant enough.

One floor was dedicated to a jewel-box of a show called "Fashion Victims." It covered not only painful shoes and garments, but poisonous ones. It also considered the pain, hard work, long hours, and illnesses endured by those who labored to manufacture fashionable items.


The dress below is made of silk dyed "arsenical green." After centuries of people having only natural, plant-based dyes, chemists began concocting chemical dyes during the Industrial Revolution. These were were often brighter and harsher than anything previously seen, and were trendy among those fashionable people who didn't consider such loud colors tasteless. (I think the color of the dress below is gorgeous.)


Bright green dyes containing arsenic were all the rage for a while, used in everything from William Morris wallpapers to clothing. Unfortunately, it was also highly toxic, with the effects seen primarily in factories but also in homes where people kept getting sick because their rooms contained arsenic. No wonder doctors would prescribe "a change of scene" so often in those days, and no wonder it worked. But as soon as the invalids came home, their symptoms returned.

Embroidered mens shoes. Click here to learn more about the exhibition.

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