These 18th-Century Shoes Underscore the Contradictions of the Age of Enlightenment
An exhibition at Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum examines fashion’s role in supporting social hierarchies that emerged during the landmark intellectual movement
Inside a slender display case, a pair of luxurious shoes still sparkles some 300 years after adorning the feet of an upper-class woman in India. Known as juttis, the shoes have delicately pointed toes and are threaded with white and emerald beads woven into an intricate floral design. Green sequins made from iridescent beetles’ wings dot the pattern with shimmering brilliance.
These toe-tapping artifacts embody the sumptuous flourishes of fine Indian craftsmanship in the 18th century. But there’s something unusual about them. Normally a flat style of footwear, the juttis’ soles were ripped out in the 1790s and replaced with a heel—a modification that aligned the shoes with fashions popular in England during the waning years of the Age of Enlightenment, a transformative intellectual movement that electrified the Western world in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Around this same time, an English trade corporation known as the East India Company dominated large swaths of India, operating as a “de facto emperor” backed by a military force, according to sociologist Emily Erikson. Appropriated to suit the tastes of a conquering power, the juttis embody the rapacious nature of European colonialism during the Enlightenment, argues a small but evocative exhibition at the Bata Shoe Museum (BSM) in Toronto, Canada. Titled “The Great Divide: Footwear in the Age of Enlightenment,” the show assembles around 50 artifacts that tell a complex story of the Enlightenment era—at once a glittering age of reform and a period of pervasive, often violent, oppression.
The Enlightenment and fabulous footwear
Originating in Europe, the Enlightenment was a dynamic movement that emerged from the Scientific Revolution and its emphasis on logic and reason. Though they were a heterogenous group, Enlightenment philosophers were united in their conviction that rational thought was key to understanding the world and improving the human condition. The ability to reason is innate to every human, these philosophers maintained, and all beings are born with “natural rights,” such as the right to life, liberty and property. Radical ideas blossomed out of the Enlightenment’s core principles, including the notion that political power should stem from the radical consent of the people, rather than the impenetrable authority of religious doctrine, monarchies or the aristocracy.
Enlightenment philosophies spawned revolutions and gave rise to fundamental Western values like democracy and individual liberty. But the reality of who, in practice, had access to natural rights is “very, very complicated,” says Elizabeth Semmelhack, the BSM’s director and senior curator. “The Great Divide” explores how ideas that came to the fore during the Enlightenment at once blurred social hierarchies and reinforced them, particularly along lines of gender and race.
Located on a busy corner in downtown Toronto, the BSM is a large, arresting limestone building designed to resemble a shoebox with its lid slightly ajar. This shrine to all things footwear was founded in 1995 by the late Sonja Bata, a philanthropist; collector; and board member of the Bata Shoe Organization, a manufacturing and retail company helmed by her husband, Thomas Bata. While traveling around the world on shoe business, she began amassing a trove of footwear that ultimately numbered more than 13,000 items, from Egyptian sarcophagi painted with sandals to Queen Victoria’s ballroom slippers to Elton John’s silver platforms. The museum not only revels in the beauty and dizzying variety of footwear across the ages but also strives to show how vital stories about human history, culture and society are woven into the fabric of even the most unassuming shoes.
“I’m very much a firm believer that fashion does much, much more than simply adorn us,” says Semmelhack.
Drawing on the BSM’s robust collection of 18th-century footwear, “The Great Divide” reflects on the Enlightenment from the ground up, casting a critical eye on the “power structures that fashion and footwear were helping to support,” says Semmelhack. This historic period continues to be critically relevant, she adds, because “a lot of the concepts that were being established in the 18th century are being considered, challenged, grappled with today.”
The exhibition opens with an array of men’s shoes illustrating how Enlightenment ideals of masculinity have left an indelible footprint on subsequent centuries of men’s dress. Honest work was viewed in an increasingly positive light during this period, due in part to mounting criticism of the aristocracy’s hereditary power and to the rising influence of the middle class. Manliness became associated with productivity; even noblemen who didn’t need to work to survive were expected to participate in politics, manage their estates and hunt. “One of the most profound [notions of masculinity to arise] is that privileged men need to not be the idle rich,” says Semmelhack. “They need to actually do something.”
The emergence of the man of action, coupled with new ideas about natural equality among rational beings, saw the fussy ostentatiousness of aristocratic dress give way to more sensible styles. This “dulling down” was particularly prominent in England and its colonies, notes Semmelhack, but ultimately spread across the West. Vibrant velvets and satins were replaced by darker fabrics. Country attire like riding boots and hunting jackets became popular in urban environments. And, in a significant departure from the preceding century, men stopped wearing high heels, which were now seen as effeminate.
In the exhibition, a practical pair of men’s shoes from 18th-century England is, accordingly, made of plain black leather, with a simple black buckle and a low, blocky heel. Even an English ceremonial shoe, still highly ornamental with its patterned silk and florid pink bow, is low to the ground. (Pink, considered a softer version of the red of military attire, was not yet viewed as a feminine color.)
As men’s shoes shrunk in height, women’s heels grew higher and narrower—not to make the wearer look tall, but to create the illusion of smallness. “The purpose of high heels wasn’t to elongate the legs; no one saw women’s legs,” Semmelhack explains. “It was to take the big foot and hide it up under women’s skirts, so all that’s being seen are tiny, tiny little tips of toes.” She points to a pair of early 18th-century shoes adorned with green and silver needlepoint. The toes are sharply pointed to ensure they peer out from beneath a long dress; the high heels are placed under the instep to make the wearer’s footprints appear dainty and small.
High heels also changed the way women walked, giving them a tottering gait. According to the exhibition, feminine footwear of the 18th century thus played into prominent theories about women’s “innate” inferiority—their smallness of intellect, their wobbliness of mind. Though Enlightenment thinkers trumpeted liberty for all rational persons, few argued that women should be granted the same political and economic rights as men. Instead, women were expected to occupy the domestic sphere, taking on roles as pleasing wives and doting mothers. Those who supported women’s subordination looked to nature to justify their beliefs; women were simply biologically different, they argued, and inherently less capable of rational thought.
“[W]oman was specifically made to please man,” wrote the preeminent Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1762. “[Man’s] merit lies in his power; he pleases simply because he is strong. I grant you this is not the law of love; but it is the law of nature.”
Even women who worked outside the home were expected to conform to feminine ideals that emphasized their differences from men. One pair of heels at the BSM shows signs of alterations suggesting they were acquired secondhand, possibly at a used-clothing market or from a wealthy employer who no longer wanted them. Dated to the 1730s, the shoes were originally fastened with bows that appear to have been replaced by more stylish straps several years later. These changes may have been made for a working-class woman who could not afford the latest footwear trends but who nevertheless wanted to dress in fashionable heels.
Imperialism and the Enlightenment
The exclusionary reality of Enlightenment values is particularly glaring in Europeans’ interactions with colonized peoples. European empire-building, which had begun centuries earlier, continued through the 1700s, with Britain and France emerging as dominant powers. The exploitation of resources and labor from foreign territories helped fuel the growth of trade and increased Europeans’ access to consumable goods. “One of the things that globalization does, of course, is it brings many, many exciting things and new ideas to the Western world,” says Semmelhack.
Western fashions devoured materials from abroad and freely appropriated “exotic” styles. Floral designs inspired by textiles from India and China—where the British bartered Indian opium for tea, silk and porcelain—were popular during the Age of Enlightenment. A pair of fashionable heels from colonial America, on view in the exhibition, is patterned with fluttery peonies and gnarled branches that evoke Chinese motifs, though its fabric was probably produced in England.
Silver from the Spanish colonies of Mexico, Bolivia and Peru—mined by conscripted Indigenous people and enslaved people imported from Africa—similarly sparked a craze for silver shoe buckles, which can be seen on multiple artifacts in the exhibition. A woman’s silver stirrup, made in 1711 for a member of a prominent Spanish family in Peru, is etched with symbols that declare it as a product of colonial ambition: a llama (an animal that was used to haul silver from mines) and an Indigenous person in a feathered headdress.
“The Great Divide” also incorporates more explicit references to the brutality that propelled the consumption of foreign goods during the Enlightenment. Among the objects on view are two French shackles that, according to Semmelhack, “represent and remind [us] of the tools used by the French to transport enslaved people.” Over the duration of the Atlantic slave trade, more than one million individuals from Africa were forced onto French slave ships. Many were taken to the West Indies, where they performed labor on French sugar plantations.
France was also a fiery center of Enlightenment thought, which played an important role in sparking the French Revolution in 1789. It might seem like a “horrible paradox” that nations shaped by Enlightenment principles could be agents of dispossession and enslavement, says Kate Fullagar, a historian at Australian Catholic University who specializes in Indigenous-imperial relations in the 18th century. But Enlightenment ideals like universal liberty and social contracts were viewed primarily as rational goals, not humanitarian ones.
“We have over the centuries attributed virtuous ideas to rationality,” Fullagar explains. “But actually, rationalism is just kind of pure logic, and it doesn’t necessarily have these moralistic … values attached to it.”
A minority of Enlightenment thinkers protested colonial conquest, but the practice was often justified on the basis of nature and logic. One prominent theory held that societies “naturally” progress in stages, from subsistence hunting to animal husbandry to agriculture to commerce. This prompted some to claim that Indigenous people “don’t really own the land because they’re not using it for anything,” Fullagar says. “They’re not applying their reason to the land to make it more productive for themselves.” Rational thought, she adds, “really gets stretched into a whole bunch of different arguments for pretty dodgy reasons.”
It was also during the 18th century that leading thinkers began to classify humans based on physical differences. Europeans had previously considered race as a means of categorizing people, but it was science-loving figures of the Enlightenment who created taxonomies that ranked humans according to appearance, linking various traits and qualities to physical features. Unsurprisingly, whiteness was often placed at the top of the hierarchy. “Humanity exists in its greatest perfection in the white race,” proclaimed the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. “The yellow Indians have a smaller amount of Talent. The Negroes are lower and the lowest are a part of the [Native] American peoples.”
What foreign peoples wore—or didn’t wear—was central to encoding their differences in the visual culture of the Enlightenment. Splashed across one wall of the exhibition is a reproduction of a 1786 painting that depicts the family of William Blair, a colonel in the East India Company. Also featured in the portrait is an ayah, or Indian servant who was tasked with caring for British children. Looking down, visitors can see that Blair is dressed in black shoes with fashionable silver buckles. The shoes of his wife and eldest daughter peek out from beneath their billowing skirts; his younger daughter wears vibrant red flats. The ayah, still a child herself, is dressed in a traditional salwar kameez and headscarf. Her feet are bare.
“For me, the fact that she is depicted without shoes is central to establishing her as ‘less than,’” says Semmelhack.
“The Great Divide” counters the reductive viewpoints expressed in Western fashions through artifacts that speak directly to the experiences of colonized peoples. Rebellion, for example, was a crucial part of the colonial story. The exhibition includes a pair of moccasins, decorated with blue and red ribbon work, believed to have been worn by Mishikinakwa (also known as Little Turtle), a leader of the Native American Myaamia tribe who helped deliver a resounding defeat of the United States Army at the 1791 Battle of Wabash. The conflict took place eight years after the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, which was profoundly inspired by Enlightenment ideals of natural rights. The rights of Native tribes were ignored in the treaties that ended the war, so white settlers continued to push into Native territory. “Mishikinakwa became renowned as a resistance fighter,” Semmelhack explains, “and he gave the new United States one of its largest military failures.”
The Enlightenment’s influence on contemporary fashion
In the center of the exhibition, separated from the historic artifacts by four walls of tinted panels, stands a selection of modern shoes: a woman’s red stiletto; a man’s Gucci boot, low-heeled and made from unadorned black leather; a pair of pink sneakers patterned with artistic renderings of cherry and plum blossoms; and Adidas sneakers, designed by Jeremy Scott, that are covered in cartoonish designs referencing Native American carvings. The display sends the pointed message that Enlightenment-era fashion trends, and the values that inspired them, continue to shape contemporary footwear.
“I do hope that people will think about how the choices that they think are natural … may in fact be informed by centuries of ideas,” Semmelhack says.
The shoes at the heart of the exhibition space also hint at the ways in which enduring sensibilities are being challenged today. The Scott sneakers, for example, were roundly criticized for appropriating Native American symbols. The low heel of the Gucci boots, in a coy subversion of gender norms, is stamped with the word “kitten.”
“We’re asking the question how many of us have a foot in the past?” Semmelhack says. “And how many of us are willing to step forward?”
“The Great Divide: Footwear in the Age of Enlightenment” is on view at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, Canada.
Editor’s note, August 12, 2022: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the BSM was founded in 1979. It was founded in 1995.