Bata Shoe Museum
This man’s shoe would have been used to express both gender and class. Its low heel conveyed that it was masculine and the expensive fabric and ostentatious bow conveyed that it was upper class. Its use of pink might confuse us today, but in the 18th century pink was not gendered. 1760-80, English Credit: CNW Group/Bata Shoe Museum

TORONTO, Ontario — The Bata Shoe Museum announces the opening of its newest exhibition, “The Great Divide: Footwear in the Age of Enlightenment.” The first of three exhibitions in the museum’s 25th anniversary lineup, “The Great Divide” explores several timely issues from gender and race to imperialism and colonization. Featuring extraordinary 18th-century artifacts from the permanent collection, the exhibition highlights complex stories about privilege, oppression, danger, desire, revolution and resistance that are as relevant today as they were 300 years ago.

The Age of Enlightenment was a period in European history from the end of the 17th to the end of the 18th century when Western philosophers and scientists wrestled with concepts of “human nature” and “natural rights.” Some argued that all people had inherent social and political rights but many more advocated for the reordering of social hierarchies using ‘scientific’ proof to divide people through the identification of “natural” differences such as gender and race. Much of the oppression and imperialism that marked the period was supported by these ideas.

“Throughout the 18th century, Western fashion, including footwear, was central to the ‘naturalization’ of difference in Europe,” said Elizabeth Semmelhack, creative director and senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum. “Distinctions between men and women, children and adults, Europeans and ‘Others’ became increasingly codified through clothing. Yet, European fashion was also used to blur the lines between classes as social mobility and access to consumable goods grew as a result of imperialism.”

The exhibition was thoughtfully designed by the award-winning designers Arc + Co who focused on creating a space that engages with the powerful themes and issues of the 18th century explored in this gallery. With loans from the Gardiner Museum, the design also includes a look at contemporary footwear, asking visitors to reflect on shoes and society today. Highlights include:

  • Moccasins said to have belonged to Myaamia leader Mishikinawa, also known as Little Turtle, who resisted the incursion into Myaami territory by delivering one of the worst defeats in U.S. history at the Battle of Wabash in 1791.
  • Late 18th-century shoes that began as Indian jutti but were transformed into a pair of English women’s shoes that embody British Imperialism in India.
  • An early 18th-century silver side-saddle stirrup made for a woman from a powerful colonial Spanish family in Peru. Roughly 85 percent of the world’s silver was mined by conscripted Indigenous people and imported enslaved Africans in Spanish-held South America.

The BSM thanks partners Ontario Cultural Attractions Fund and the Toronto Star.  

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