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Sole Searching Studying shoes: Standing alone, footwear provides a rare glimpse at the triumphs, tragedies and cultural self-images of those who wear it.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's hard to say why these freakishly tiny shoes, nestled in a cardboard box, survived. Perhaps the exquisite green and red silk Chinese slippers, three and a half inches long and likely made by a woman for her own bound feet, were a family keepsake. Perhaps they were benignly neglected, then rediscovered by someone who treasures finely made old things.

In either case, it is fortunate for the balding Danish podiatrist snapping photos at the Pennsylvania College of Podiatric Medicine's Shoe Museum that the pair survived. They speak to the doctor -- of history, fashion, cultural self-image -- in ways that transcend their tangible essence.

He is not the only one awed by shoes.

Beyond the evil opulence of shoe queen Imelda Marcos, beyond fetish, beyond kick-butt Doc Marten's, blue Hush Puppies and platform revivals, shoes are commanding enormous attention around the globe. Shaped by our feet, tinged with our smell, molded by history, shoes reflect civilization's halting stride, one step forward, two steps back.

Shoes are proxies for patricians, peasants, professionals, working men, women and children otherwise lost to history. They speak for their original owners, as well as for the times the owners lived through. Sturdier than other apparel, sturdier than those who wore them, shoes, standing on their own, contain an individual's -- and a society's -- spirit.

That residual energy is not lost among captivated curators and patrons of museum shoe collections from Japan to Mexico City to Florence. "There's an absolutely screaming interest in shoes going on all over the world," says Edward Maeder, curator of Toronto's new Bata Shoe Museum.

The Bata, which opened last year in a shoe-box shaped building, is home to the world's largest collection of shoes and shoe-related objects. It is already attracting hordes of shoe-bedazzled tourists.

Even the 20-year-old Shoe Museum in Philadelphia, tucked into a podiatry school, has watched attendance grow from a trickle to a flood. "It's amazing how many people are interested in shoes," says its curator, Barbara Williams.

People are flocking to see the famous ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in "The Wizard of Oz." The glittering icons are clicking across the country as part of a traveling Smithsonian Institution exhibition.

The ruby slippers symbolize the elusive, childlike utopia of our American Dream. But shoes can also evoke far darker visions of the world.

Understanding

In a dim hall at the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum, shoes that belonged to slaughtered Jews are piled by thousands, speaking the unspeakable. The museum is designed to allow visitors to "find [their] own understanding" of the Holocaust, says Raye Farr, permanent exhibit curator and currently the museum's director of film and video. For many, understanding arrives with the sour, sweaty, leathery smell of the shoes, which have preserved their owners' scent long after the owners perished.

Shoes transform the personal into the political. From federal squares to backwater shopping malls, those who have suffered the brutality of war, child abuse and AIDS are represented by shoes. At the "Silent March," a 1994 protest against gun violence in Washington, D.C., 38,000 pairs of shoes, symbolizing those Americans killed by guns in one year, encircled the Capitol Reflecting Pool.

The current fascination with shoes fits neatly into historical precedent, says June Swann, former keeper of the shoe and boot collection at the Northampton Museum in Northampton, England. At the end of every century, a civilization's fancy turns to shoes, she believes. It follows that at the end of every millennium, a civilization becomes obsessed with shoes. That's why, as we approach the year 2000, shoe preoccupation is at a ferocious peak.

The present "rash of exhibitions" parallels European shoe mania at the end of the 19th century, Ms. Swann says. A century ago, she notes, an enormous shoe show at the Royal Agricultural Halls in London drew "swarms of people."

"Something strange happens to people," says Ms. Swann, who is a renowned scholar of shoe lore. "They become very insecure at the end of every century, which often coincides with wars and revolutions," she says.

In such times, people turn to their shoes.

As historical artifact, shoes are invaluable, Ms. Swann says. "The shoes of common men and women, worn absolutely to the death, patched, hobnailed and patched again, tell you more about the polity than all statistics you ever [heard,]" she says from her England home.

Shoes' cultural clout stem from their chameleonic power, Mr. Maeder says. "Shoes are the most personal item of our wardrobe; they maintain the shape of feet, the personality of their wearers after they've no longer been worn," he says. "From that point, there's something slightly magical, slightly mystical about shoes."

As stand-ins for those who have worn them, shoes accrue in value. Auctioning celebrity shoes is a "hugely popular" way to raise money, Mr. Maeder says. The Bata boasts the shoes of Queen Victoria, Elizabeth Taylor, John Lennon, Elton John, Picasso and Elvis.

The meaning of shoes, their aesthetic value and ubiquity have captured the imagination of artists whose footwear fantasies are exhibited in far-flung galleries and museums.

A recent gala opening for designer Andrea Pfister's exhibition of fanciful handmade shoes at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York drew an urbane, fashion-forward crowd. Last fall, a Sacramento, Calif., exhibit called "If the Shoe Fits" featured shoe creations of 40 Northern California artists.

Books galore toast and roast shoes. "Shoes: Fashion and Fantasy," traces the history of tacky mules, tap-dancing clogs, exquisite footwear by designers like Andre Perugia, Salvatore Ferragamo and Manolo Blahnik.

"Cinderella's Revenge" is based on an exhibition of designers' unwearable art shoes made from found objects, marble, metal and glass.

The price of fashion

While the haute-fashion crowd revels in high-heeled, impractical beauty, other artists dig in their heels for more politically charged material.

For an art installation last semester, Mindy Shapero, a student at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, painted hundreds of donated high heels white and dangled them from panty hose in a student gallery.

The eerily lit assemblage included Ms. Shapero's 200 paintings of the backs of high heels. She is intrigued by the paradox of shoes that make you teeter. They both raise a woman's stature and hobble her. Ms. Shapero is troubled by the contradiction.

Now, she's trying to figure out what to do with 50 miniature glass Cinderella slippers. "I [can't] stay completely away from these shoe things," Ms. Shapero says.

Baltimore artist Ruth Pettus dissects, tars and impales discarded wingtips and clodhoppers to draw homely beauty from tortured shoe leather. Best known for her paintings of grim men in dark suits, Ms. Pettus "walks a lot, observes a lot, pays attention to feet."

Through her work, she seeks to record the intricate workmanship that went into brogans and other solid shoes. Such footwear is "almost becoming extinct," she says. "Everyone wears athletic shoes, rubber-soled synthetic shoes."

The technical definition of sneakers is open to debate. Those, like Ms. Pettus, Mr. Maeder and other shoe aficionados fear that athletic shoes are killing the cobbler's art. But sneakers, as a possession to die for, serve as status symbol as powerfully as any shoe does.

They may not resemble the elevated chopines that once separated 16th century gentle women from mud and riffraff. He who sports Nikes or Filas may not claim authority equal to the few aristocrats allowed to wear red-heeled shoes during the reign of Louis XIV in France. But anyone doubting sneakers' social significance need only visit any American school where chunky, blindingly clean, zig-zag zebra-striped athletic shoes rule the halls.

Here comes 2000. Expect shoe obsession to intensify.

Pub Date: 4/30/96

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