Going Toe to Toe with Shoes

At Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, footwear opens a window on the lives and lore of peoples throughout the ages

Clad in a designer suit and a soft silk scarf, Sonja Bata looks like she shops in the exclusive boutiques of Toronto's Bloor Street, not on an icebound island in the Canadian Arctic or in the dusty market towns of Tibet. But Bata, businesswoman, philanthropist and founder of North America's largest and most comprehensive shoe museum, will go just about anywhere to get the right shoe.

Opened in May 1995, Toronto's Bata Shoe Museum celebrates footwear and shoemaking not as a footnote to fashion but as a window on human history. Its collection includes such treasures as woven funerary shoes from a royal tomb in ancient Thebes, 15th-century German foot armor, Queen Victoria's mourning boots and a rare pair of Inuit boots made of eider skin. The museum, which also features such crowd-pleasers as Picasso's zebra-striped boot, Elvis Presley's blue-and-white patent loafers, Madonna's hot-pink pumps and Elton John's rhinestone-studded platforms, has gained international attention for its provocative, sometimes irreverent treatment of an offbeat subject.

From foot fetishism to the role of shoe prints in crime detection, from occupations that have fostered singular shoe styles to fashions that have given rise to such terms as "well-heeled," the museum traces the engaging saga of shoes.

"Footwear tells the whole human story," says Sonja Bata, whose husband is the international shoe manufacturer and retailer Thomas Bata. "It's all there, from the animal hides that prehistoric cave dwellers wrapped around their feet to the high-tech boots worn by astronauts. I know people arrive here thinking 'What kind of wacky place is this, a footwear hall of fame?' "But," she continues with a grin, "they leave saying shoes are more interesting than they ever dreamed possible."