Stepping into FIT’s new shoe exhibit

FIT’s new shoe exhibit asks “Shoe are you?”


Camila Ceballos

The Museum at FIT director Dr. Valerie Steele and costume curator Colleen Hill curate a striking new shoe exhibit (Camila Ceballos for WSN)

Sabrina Lee and Linsey Liao

It’s often said that in order to understand someone, you need to walk a mile in their shoes. The role of those shoes beyond everyday life becomes clear in the Fashion Institute of Technology’s new exhibit “Shoes: Anatomy, Identity, Magic.” Curated by the director of The Museum at FIT, Valerie Steele, and costume curator Colleen Hill, the exhibition features more than 300 historical pairs of shoes from FIT’s permanent collection, referencing moments in pop culture, art and fashion.

The exhibit’s gallery begins with a display of baby shoes, from Gucci sneakers to tiny red satin slippers, symbolizing the beginning of life. A clip from “The Wizard of Oz” featuring Dorothy’s own ruby slippers in front of a yellow brick road loops on a screen, transporting attendees through the portrayal of shoes in popular films and television.

Walking into the main exhibition is like entering a boutique. Pairs of ribbon-adorned kitten heels, Croc clogs and metallic Americana cowboy boots are pristine behind glass displays, tempting the viewer to try them on. 

A display of eight pairs of black boots of increasing height from left to right.
(Camila Ceballos for WSN)

In the first section, titled “Anatomy,” a pair of Vivienne Westwood black leather mules molded with toe-shaped ridges draws attention to the fact that the majority of shoes aren’t actually shaped like feet. Further questioning practicality is a pair of Comme Des Garçons medieval-inspired poulaines — boots with absurdly long, upwardly curved toes. The plastic hose that extends the toes makes the shoes highly impractical, greatly affecting the wearer’s movements. This contrasts the assumed physicality of a wearer of Chanel Black silk “Miami Vice” pumps or a ballerina’s pointe shoes. 

Two pairs of leather shoes with the silhouette of toes marked on them. The pair on the left is brown and the pair on the right is black.
(Camila Ceballos for WSN) 

Another wall of the exhibit’s “Anatomy” section is lined with a series of black boots ordered by height, from ankle length to thigh-highs. The collection emphasizes the body, specifically the amount of leg shown, as a central part of wearing shoes. 

The second section, “Identity,” revolves around our tendency to associate different shoe styles with different types of people. Stilettos, for example, are often associated with the femme fatale, whereas rubber-soled sneakers invoke athleticism. The shoes span from the early 20th century to modern day and range from red leather pumps circa 1925 to Maison Margiela’s classic tabi boots — all the way to BathingApe’s exclusive “Bapesta” series sneakers. 

A collage of three photos: one on the right is a pair of shoes with black and white leather and blades resembling skating shoes; on the top left is a pair of shoes with black leather and red, gold, and white stripes; on the bottom left is a pair of high heeled shoes with pink feathers.
(Camila Ceballos for WSN) 

The section is diverse in its selection. A variety of pumps, boots and wedges are emphasized, but space is also made for more contemporary styles, including a section exclusively for sneakers. Puma’s #REFORM sneakers stand out, made in collaboration with Meek Mill to promote the brand’s message to fight for fairness within the U.S. criminal justice system.

The final section, “Magic,” centers on our unconscious belief that the right pair of shoes, whether the archetypal glass slipper or a pair of Jimmy Choos, could change our lives. The theme is hard to miss. In the center of the main room, viewers are attracted to a crimson acrylic installation. Within the display is a mannequin bent over as if trying on shoes, surrounded by walls of differently hued heels. 

One wall revolves around our association of certain types of shoes with supernatural abilities, simultaneously featuring the golden sandals of the Greek god Hermes and a pair of Nike Air Jordans to honor the talents of the NBA superstar. A series of stunning high-end crimson heels stood tall on the same side. Red Tom Ford velvet wedges with ribbon straps sat next to a pair of Noritaka Tatehana platforms, adorned with ruby-colored crystals and golden rivets along the soles. 

Shoes are indispensable to our daily lives, from evening events and special occasions to athletic activities. Steele and Hill invite us to dig deeper into a mundane part of our everyday lives, showing us how shoes have impacted us throughout history.

“Shoes: Anatomy, Identity, Magic” is on display in FIT’s special exhibitions gallery from Sept. 1 to Dec. 31.

Contact Sabrina Lee and Linsey Liao at [email protected]