If the Shoe Fits
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In his 1887 novel, A Study in Scarlet, Arthur Conon Doyle introduced the world to Sherlock Holmes and his loyal but sometimes sceptical companion, Dr. John Watson. Early in their relationship, Watson gets off on the wrong foot by criticizing a newspaper article The Book of Life, in which appear the sentences:
From a drop of water a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other. So all life is a great chain, the nature of which is known whenever we are shown a single link of it.
Of course, Holmes had written it and Watson’s disbelief presents an opportunity for Holmes to show off his detective skills.
In part because it suggests the interconnectedness of ideas, no matter where one starts, it’s an idea that fascinates. For me, one starting point has always been small and esoteric museums.
There are museums dedicated to love and to war and to various foodstuffs. On one trip to Japan, I wandered through a forest and came upon a museum no bigger than my living room, which housed a few dozen stone kitsune, Japanese fox spirits. It was enchanting, perhaps more so because there were no English labels to help decode what I was seeing. I thought it was near Nagoya, but an online search shows nothing. Elusive. It may have been the last day of a temporary exhibit. Who knows? I like to think that the entire experience was the invention of some fox spirit, creatures well known for their trickery.
I visited a war criminal museum in Chongqing once only to find out that among the war criminals being depicted were Americans. When the guide was informed that a couple in our group were US citizens, she became tongue-tied, torn between her well-worn script and the ingrained traditional Chinese hospitality to guests. It was a short tour.
But a small museum I’ve visited several times is the Bata Shoe Museum, in Toronto, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2015. It’s the life’s work of Swiss-born Sonja Bata who married Thomas Bata whose family had lost their shoe business in Czechoslovakia as a result of communist rule. Sonja studied architecture before she married so it is no wonder the museum is an architectural jewel. Once she married, Sonja threw herself into the business in a hands-on way, investigating every aspect of the business and undertaking ethnographic research, seeing what shoes people wear around the world and why. From its beginnings, one aim of the company was to provide quality shoes to those who could not afford them.
On the day I visit, I still tour the permanent exhibits. Despite having one of the largest collections of footwear in the world, the museum is manageably small. Then I go to the two special exhibits, one on Fashion Victims, a show on the health threats that poisonous textile dyes and materials (hatters were mad because they worked with mercury), poor work conditions, and even the tight-fitting corsets that deprived women of breath.
A second exhibit is equally fascinating. It’s Standing Tall: The Curious History of Men in High Heels. I learn that men in Europe didn’t wear high heels until the turn of the 17th century. Men’s high heels were common through parts of Asia, probably for the reason that they made riding a horse easier, with heels wedged in stirrups. Being steady on a horse allowed one to wield weapons, such as a bow and arrow. It was an early decisive advantage in war.
Wearing high red heels became a royal prerogative under Louis XIV, but that only made others want to wear them too. The trend probably reflected the red shoes worn by the Catholic popes who, in turn, had picked up the habit from the early fashion-conscious pre-11th century Christian rulers of Byzantium. More recently, French designer Christian Louboutin obtained an American copyright on the brilliant red (scarlet!) soles of his shoes. It seems that anyone challenging the copyright ruling could have it dismissed by a little historical research.
High heels for men have been criticized for hundreds of years as being too effeminate, but they have also prompted religious objections. In the early 18th century, men’s high heels were condemned for being contrary to God’s will; If God made you a certain height, it was considered an insult against one’s creator to try to be artificially taller.
From the early beginnings of high heels, the small exhibit’s glass cases and signage wrapped around to the glam-rock platform boots worn by Elton John and to other pop culture heroes and drag queens.
But how does this relate to the Sherlock Holmes quote?
Almost any museum is, itself, a massive piece of detective work, struggling to make sense of the past. I can draw a line to the Chongqing War Criminal Museum in terms of the use of high heels in stirrups to better conduct battles. I read elsewhere that Christian Louboutin’s career as a shoemaker was launched after a 1976 visit to another museum, Musée National des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie. However, his inspiration wasn’t the contents of the museum, but rather a sign that forbade women from wearing stiletto heels for fear of damaging the antique wood floors. The rebel in him made him want to design shoes to do just that.
And foxes? In an earlier visit I learned that the story of Charles Perrault's Cinderella glass slipper, a pantoufle de verre was once commonly considered a mistranslation of the similar-sounding fox fur slipper, pantoufle de vair, but that the oft-repeated story is likely a myth.
It sounds like the sort of thing a fox spirit would say.