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Good For the Sole

In Downtown Toronto, Step Into North America's Only Shoe Museum

Is it possible to have enough shoes? At the Bata Shoe Museum, the answer is an emphatic 'no.' This unique museum, located in the heart of Toronto, is dedicated not only to the preservation of shoes from a diverse array of time periods and places, but also to sharing the stories and wealth of knowledge available from these seemingly unassuming objects.

"We all wear shoes," explains the BSM's Senior Curator, Elizabeth Semmelhack. "Despite the fact that we all have an intimate knowledge of this object, the real fact of the matter is that shoes can reveal larger cultural structures. They really are a fascinating way of stepping into larger cultural ideas."

The Bata Shoe Museum evolved out of the remarkable personal collection of Swiss-born businesswoman Sonja Bata. Mrs. Bata moved to Toronto in 1946, where she became involved with the global shoe industry. During the following decades, she amassed an extraordinary collection of thousands of shoes from all corners of the world and all periods of history. The Bata Shoe Museum Foundation was founded in 1979 when the collection finally outpaced available private storage, and the museum opened in 1995.

Today, the BSM is the only shoe museum in North America, and it houses over 13,000 shoes and related artifacts that nearly span the entire scope of recorded history and nearly every culture in the world. "Our oldest artifacts is 4,500 years old and is from ancient Egypt, while the most recent objects are sneakers," Semmelhack explains. 

At the BSM, shoes are a vehicle for sharing insights into the powerful cultural structures that influence visitors' lives. "We think shoes are worn to protect the foot, but for the majority of shoes, that is not their principle function," explains Semmelhack. "Shoes are essential in establishing gender and social identity. If a man decides to wear a pair of red high heels, he is constructing an identity. Our footwear choices are not really as wide as one might think. Those are the sorts of questions that we grapple with."

A robust program of rotating exhibits enables the BSM to delve into different aspects of shoes and fashion history. Standing Tall: The Curious History of Men in Heels, which will be on display until November 2017, begins with one surprising observation. "Heels were actually invented for men," Semmelhack explains. "We can trace them back to the 10th century in Persia, where they were used as equestrian military footwear. We look at how heels came into being, how they evolved, and how they have been used to express hegemonic masculinity." 

After a visit to the BSM, you may never look at shoes in quite the same way again--and for Semmelhack, that is a really good thing. "One of our greatest challenges is encouraging people to come to the museum with an open mind," she says. "For me, the most rewarding part is when someone says, 'Wow, I had no idea that we could learn that much from looking at a pair of shoes.'"

--  By Ettractions Digital Content Editor EMILY JARMOLOWICZ

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