Sunday, February 8, 2015

An Upcoming Exhibition for Lovers of Historical Shoes

Sunday, February 8, 2015
Isabella reporting,

Anyone who reads this blog knows our great love for shoes. We're not shy about it; we state it right up front, over there beneath our selfie.

With that in mind, I'm delighted to announce an upcoming exhibition devoted not only to historical shoes, but also the women who wore them. Cosmopolitan Consumption: New England Shoe Stories 1750-1850 will be opening on Valentine's Day (how appropriate!) at the Portsmouth Athenaeum, Portsmouth, NH, and will run through June 5, 2015. Over forty pairs of shoes borrowed from various collections will be featured as well as a number of costumes and accessories, and admission is free. The 1750 print of The Shoe Peddler, above left, appears on the invitations to the exhibition, and the peddler's wares hint a the diversity of the show as well.

One of this blog's good friends, Dr. Kimberly Alexander, is co-curator of the exhibition, and she has generously shared advance photos of several of shoes with us.  In the past,"the ankle and instep were considered sexually charged," she notes. "How much of a glimpse of that region the onlooker captured had to do with flirtation....You can learn so much from the way people wore their shoes, altered, their shoes, saved their shoes. [Men and] women's shoes give us a chance to talk about what their lives were like."

Take the story of the shoe, right, (and yes, it was once part of a pair that was split so that two of the wearer's children could each have a memento.) The shoes were worn by Sally Brewster Gerrish, the newlywed daughter of innkeeper William Brewster. President George Washington visited Portsmouth in 1789, and of course a ball was given in his honor. Since Washington slept at the tavern kept by Brewster, Sally was asked to ride in the carriage with the president, and these were the shoes she wore with her ball gown. The once-stylish shoes have crumpled a bit over the centuries, the silk has faded, and the decorative buckles that closed them have long since been removed, but the magic remains in the slippers a young Yankee lady wore to an unforgettable ball.

The detail of the shoes, below left, tell a story that's more about evolving tastes and fashions. By the end of the 18th c., women's dresses had changed dramatically. Gone were the wide skirts and stiff stays to shape the body. In their place were softer, more narrow gowns with raised waists that reflected an interest in classically-inspired silhouettes, combined with exotic accessories such as plumed turbans and paisley patterned shawls from India. This shoe is as flat as an ancient sandal, with a sharply pointed toe that accentuated the new narrower skirts, and the Eastern-inspired design printed on the leather brought a touch of exoticism to the now-unknown New England lady who wore it. (And I have to admit that I'd love to wear these now myself.)

I'll be sharing more images and stories from the exhibition over the next weeks. See here for information about the exhibition.

Above left: The Shoe Peddler or The Shoe Seller's Wife, by Martin Engelbrecht, c. 1750. Bavarian State Library.
Right: Brocade shoe, maker unknown, c. 1789. Portsmouth Historical Society.
Lower left: Fine grained slipper with "Alhambraesque" detail, c. 1790s, Portsmouth Historical Society


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