No, the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto is not a fashion museum in the traditional sense. Instead, this small cultural jewel box is a serious collection of artifacts (i.e., shoes) that focuses on the evolution of footwear. It addresses intriguing overarching questions, such as: Who were the first people to cover their feet? Why these shoes then or now? Why are some shoes worn only by some people? And when did shoes move from being a necessity to a fashion statement?
“What makes the shoe such an interesting artifact is that it’s so naturalized,” said Elizabeth Semmelhack, the museum’s director and senior curator. “You don’t think about it until someone shows up in the wrong shoes. When someone in the office is wearing a suit and flipflops, or a man appears in high heels.”
It all began with Mrs. Sonja Bata accompanied her husband, Mr. Thomas Bata, on business trips over the course of fifty years.
“She traveled around the world with him,” Semmelhack said. “She made the astute observation that people’s feet are the same wherever you go, but what they put on their feet is traditionally different.”
Mrs. Bata began picking up shoes on their travels. By the late 1970s, the collection had grown to thousands of pairs of shoes.
“People suggested she start a museum,” Semmelhack said. And so she did. It began as a foundation that displayed shoes in various venues around Toronto before a permanent home was found in its current location in 1995.
You get your first sense of what the Bata Shoe Museum is about by its exterior architecture. The award-winning building was specially designed by eminent Canadian architect Raymond Moriyama to house the collection. “Mr. Moriyama was inspired by a shoebox,” Semmelhack said. “The museum suggests a shoebox with the lid slightly askew to peek inside.”
It’s a small museum, at only 39,450 square feet. But within that space, it has a permanent exhibition and three rotating galleries and houses the 15,000-piece collection dating back 4,500 years (only a small percentage is exhibited at any given time). Two new exhibitions open every year, one in spring and one in fall.
“Shoes are fragile,” Semmelhack said. “We want to be able to preserve these artifacts for generations to come.”
There’s no recommended way to visit, though it’s suggested to start on the basement level, where you’ll find the permanent gallery, “All About Shoes: Footwear Through the Ages.” The exhibition, focusing on history rather than aesthetics, tells the story of how shoes reflect society’s shifts through the centuries in technology as well as values and attitudes.
“It’s a bit of a smorgasbord of shoes from our collection, welcoming people to the museum and piquing their interest,” Semmelhack said. “It shows how footwear can be used to express a wide range of social concerns and issues, how specialized footwear was developed for jobs, religion, and status.”
The permanent exhibition begins with the notion that some 3.7 million years ago, hominids went from walking on all fours to walking upright. And no doubt, as they traipsed about, they realized they needed something to protect their feet.
Sandals belonging to ancient Egyptians were discovered in burial tombs. For the most part, people walked barefoot; they only wore footwear for special events. That said, the ancient Egyptians except the very poor began wearing sandals during the New Kingdom (16th-11th centuries b.c.). Craftsmen in buzzing cities such as Memphis and Alexandria included tanners and sandalmakers who made simple shoes of straw, reeds, or leather and decorated with beads, jewels, and some even had buckles made from precious metals.
Among the earliest extant footwear discovered in the Western Hemisphere are sandals worn by Ancestral Puebloans more than 6,000 years ago. They were made from yucca plant leaves that were beaten into a soft fiber rope that was then plaited into durable soles. The sandal to the right of the photo, dating from the year 1000, features a looser weave than the one on the left, dating from 100–700 a.d.
One part of the exhibit points out how extravagant footwear has been a universal symbol of status for thousands of years. Sometimes impractical elements such as pointed toes and high heels conveyed the wearer was from the privileged class free from the dirty, taxing demands of common labor.
In Gothic Europe, the toe length indicated the shoe wearer’s social status. Edward IV of England even mandated in 1463 that anyone below the rank of a lord must wear pointed toes less than two inches within London “on pain of forfeiting 40d to your highness for every offence.” This German pair of metal sabatons was part of a suit of armor worn by a 15th-century equestrian soldier.
Spanish and Italian women during the Renaissance—notably Venetians—wore high-platformed chopines beneath their skirts. Their practical purpose was to protect the feet from wet and muddy streets, though over time, the wearer’s status played a role—some measured over 20 inches tall (an attendant was required to help her balance). In addition, the added volume required additional expensive cloth to be used to make their dresses.
In Rajasthan, both men and women wore the mojari for everyday tasks, including walking long distances to collect drinking water. Clearly from an elevated class, a 19th-century temple dancer wore this pair of saffron-colored leather mogari, designed with gold zardozi embroidery, jade beads, and brass bells.
Brides in India were traditionally bestowed lavish footwear. Elaborate leaf and vine motifs made in filigree, called chinar, decorate this 19th-century pair of silver mules.
In Western Africa, rulers considered their footwear to be an important element of their traditional dress. Monarchs of the historic Ashanti Empire often wore sandals embellished with large, gold-leaf ornaments. Because their feet never were allowed to touch the earth, they always carried extra sandals with them, wherever they traveled.
The Han in imperial China believed dainty feet measuring roughly three inches long, called jin lian or “golden lotuses,” epitomized female beauty. The practice produced a gait using the thigh and buttock muscles that some viewed as erotic. It also indicated status—women with bound feet could not undertake any physical labor in the fields. The miniscule size was obtained through the crippling binding of the feet over a two-year process. This pair of narrow shoes with elongated toes and delicate “ladder-rung” lacing dates from early 20th-century Zhoushan in Zhejiang Province.
The greatest change in footwear came with the industrial revolution, when all of a sudden, experienced shoemakers in Europe and North America who normally made two pairs of shoes a day could make hundreds. As more varieties and styles became available, demand grew—eventually becoming an obsession.
Fast-forward to the 1970s, when the platform shoe was all the rage. This pair by Lorie Azzaro dates from the mid-seventies. But remember, the earliest platforms date from the Middle Ages, when wooden overshoes were fastened with leather straps, as a functional way of protecting the feet from muddy streets.
And that’s the beauty of this museum: It takes you on a sweeping journey from the earliest days of humankind, showcasing how people through the ages have turned the simple necessity of protecting the feet from harsh environments to becoming obsessed with fashion.
This takes us through the “All About Shoes” exhibit—but that’s not all this small but mighty museum offers.
From the basement “All About Shoes” exhibit, you can head to the upper floors to explore the temporary exhibitions—there are three on show at a time. Past exhibits have included Thierry Agnone’s paper shoes and the art of Manolo Blahnik.
On the top floor, you’ll currently find “In Bloom: Flowers and Footwear,” which showcases how cultures around the world have been inspired by botanicals throughout history in designing their footwear. Among the highlights are a pair of sandals from 1896 by Yves Saint Laurent that makes the wearer feel like their feet are wrapped in foliage; Manchu platform shoes adorned with cherry blossoms from the second half of the 19th century; and Peranakan beaded wedding shoes from the 1920s decorated with peonies and butterflies. The exhibition closes October 6, 2024.
One floor below, “Obsessed” How Shoes Became Objects of Desire,” open until April 2024, traces the path that shoes have taken to evolve from functional to a societal obsession. Footwear designers became celebrities (hello Manolo Blahnik and Yves Saint Laurent) and certain shoes become highly coveted (for example, Air Jordan).
Another temporary exhibit, open until October 2023, explores futuristic footwear design. “Future Now: Virtual Sneakers to Cutting-Edge Kicks” includes designs that are digitally designed and 3D-printed. There are sneakers designed from mushroom leather and reclaimed ocean plastics, and even shoes made for the metaverse.
When you’re done with your exploration of footwear, the small gift shop has tempting gifts, including books about fashion, stationary, and accessories.
And when you exit back onto Toronto’s busy streets, you should have an all-new appreciation of shoes. “When people leave,” Semmelhack said, “I really hope they have a feeling of ‘Wow, I never knew I could learn that much by looking at shoes.’”
GOOD EATS: A Toronto staple, the nearby Fresh Kitchen + Juice Bar is an outpost of the popular chain offering a large menu of vegetarian and vegan dishes and made-to-order juices created from fresh, natural ingredients.
Featured Photo: “In Bloom” exhibition | © 2023 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada (Photo: Margaret Mulligan)
By Barbara Noe Kennedy
Barbara Noe Kennedy left her longtime position as senior editor at National Geographic Book Publishing in 2015 to go freelance as a travel journalist. She writes stories about art, history, culture food and drink, and social justice for various publications, teaches classes on travel writing and destinations, and writes books, including the forthcoming 100 Things to Do in Arlington Before You Die. Learn more at barbaranoekennedy.com.