Barbie is on display at the Bata Shoe Museum
Plastic fashion dolls have been stimulating children’s imaginations for over 60 years, and now they have empowered people of all ages to achieve the designer shoe collections of their dreams. “Shoes have been used for decades as a punctuation mark for a fashion statement,” says Elizabeth Semmelhack, and for dolls it’s no different.
The tiny models of All Dolled Up – the latest exhibit at the Bata Shoe Museum, where Semmelhack is director and senior curator – are well-equipped to strut around. “We have beautifully designed miniature replicas of the most desirable women’s shoes,” she says. This, she adds, allows visitors to “participate in high-end designer shoes … but at a more affordable price than owning the real (thing).”
The exhibition is unique for the museum, because the Bata’s other artifacts are sized for human feet. “Real-life shoes are considered works of art and collectibles, but when you shrink them they are still beautiful and collectable,” says Semmelhack. “We are amazed at the details that can be made to shoes and doll clothes. “
The show also explores the societal desire to differentiate dolls from action figures. “For years, Barbie’s foot has been shaped so that she can only wear high heels,” says Semmelhack. “It raised the question of whether that limited what Barbie could do.” Some exhibits examine the art of making miniature shoes and examine video games and the creation and dressing of avatars.
The popularity of All Dolled Up, which lasts until October 15, reflects what Semmelhack calls “an aspect of our wider fascination with shoes.” For the late Sonja Bata, this fascination was deep. In 1979, his private shoe collection formed the genesis of the Bata Shoe Museum Foundation, which today continues its mandate of researching and collecting shoes from around the world. With over 14,600 shoes and related items, the collection spans over 4,500 years of history, from ancient Egyptian sandals to the latest non-fungible tokens.
Since Bata’s death three years ago, Semmelhack has been collecting more contemporary materials, some of which will be on display in an exhibition on the future of footwear, scheduled for May. “Unlike a nice dress or a hoodie – which need to be worn to maintain their architecture – shoes retain their shape, like a sculpture, when not worn,” explains Semmelhack. “You can see how he would become an object of desire.
“There are people who like them like sculptures or who want to collect all Air Jordans or the newer ones. [artist] collaboration, where designers can think outside the box, ”she adds. “We are now in the moment when a lot of people collect sneakers, rather than fine wine or sports cards or watches. They can be collected for their cultural significance and monetary value. There is such a strong resale market, especially for sneakers.
In Semmelhack’s eyes, the Bata collection is far from complete. “Of course I have a few holy grails,” she said. Although the museum received a donation of an original 1985 Air Jordan 1, it continues its multi-year search for an original Nike Air Max 90, designed by Tinker Hatfield. She is also interested in the 16th century Venetian pint, a type of platform shoe for women. “We have pints in the collection,” says Semmelhack, “but by the end of the 16th century they were up to 54 centimeters high.” It’s quite a challenge.