“You know,” said Sarah Albee, “this is a very strange thing to do.”
It was a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in Toronto and we were at the Bata Shoe Museum, about to tour their special exhibition, Fashion Victims: The Perils and Pleasures of Dress in the Nineteenth Century. Sarah and I share a lively interest in the gritty real-life details of history: disease, poison, food contamination and, of course, filth. (Especially in Sarah’s case: she loves insects and poop. She’ll make you love them, too.) There was absolutely nothing unusual about our being at an exhibition about Victorian craziness… unless you count the fact that we’d never before met in real life. Call it a Writer’s Blind Date. It worked beautifully.
Sarah knows a lot more about fashion than I do, so I felt privileged to see the exhibition through her eyes. One of the first items was this pair of impossibly small satin shoes.
You can’t get a sense of scale from my photo but trust me when I say they’re maybe 8 inches long, and proportionately narrow. Sarah explained that they’re called “straights” – there is neither a left nor right shoe, and the wearer must alternate feet in order to preserve their delicate shape.
Here’s another pair of “straights”, which were the standard even for bespoke (custom-made) shoes until the second half of the nineteenth century. The museum plaque explains: “This pair of almost impossibly narrow boots and gloves belonged to Elisabeth, the Empress of Austria. The boots were gifted to Colonel Louis de Schweiger, one of the countless men who had fallen under her spell, by the Empress’s maid Marie Doré as a ‘tendre souvenir’.” I love this story! I picture a moustachioed colonel sitting all alone in a first-class rail carriage, cuddling a pair of boots. But I want to know more about the maid, Marie Doré. Why is she named? Did she take pity on the colonel and slip him the boots and gloves on her own initiative? Did giving them away save her the labour of having to clean the boots? They’re slightly scuffed…
Here’s a terrific example of a corset and crinoline combination, from the back 3/4 angle. We don’t often get to see the underpinnings so clearly.
Again, this example is tiny – so narrow that I felt a little breathless just looking at it – and the plaque speculated that it was made to fit a young girl.
Here’s the other end of the spectrum: black shoes with a beaded butterfly detail, made in 1888 to fit the century’s most famous widow: Queen Victoria herself.
I love these French boots, which were the height of 1860s fashion. I would absolutely, unhesitatingly wear them myself on a regular basis.
…Except, of course, that the dyes used to create these screaming-bright colours often gave the wearers chemical burns. Ahem.
Speaking of chemical innovation, I was astounded to read that the tortoiseshell-looking comb in the next photo was actually made of celluloid. Celluloid, a kind of plastic, being mass-produced in the 1880s!
(As I stood in front of this display, muttering “Celluloid!” to myself, Sarah kept saying, “Where? I don’t see it. Where are you reading this?” Dear reader, she
thought hoped I was saying “cyanide”.)
Near the very end of the exhibit, we finally saw these plain shoes and we both sighed, “Finally! Working-class shoes!”
We agreed that the men’s shoes (with the buckles) were the first sturdy, practical shoes we’d seen thus far. The women’s pair, although made of leather, was still straight and rather delicate-looking. I suspect that it’s harder to preserve everyday working shoes because they’re so much more likely to be (literally) worn to pieces. Or do you think working women simply wore men’s shoes when they really needed to get around out-of-doors?
With Victorian fashions dancing in our heads, Sarah and I spent the rest of the afternoon walking, lunching, and talking pretty much nonstop. It was an immense treat, talking to another writer about work-in-progress, agents and editors, proofreading angst (Sarah’s tip: hire a super-literate college student to be your extra pair of proofreading eyes) and balancing work with family craziness.
Here are the happy faces of a pair of writers who’ve been talking cholera and intestinal worms for much of the day:
(She ducked down to my level for this shot. In real life, we look like a racehorse beside a Shetland pony.)
Sarah’s right: it was probably a very strange thing to do. But I think it’s the kind of strange thing that should happen more often. Don’t you?