Elizabeth Semmelhack has been named one of the world's top game-changing fashion curators. She is the Senior Curator and Creative Director at The Bata Shoe Museum, North America's only shoe museum. She is a shoe historian and an accomplished author of eight books, with a ninth being released in October. Read Elle's conversation with Elizabeth below to find out her unique perspective on what fashion says about culture.
Elle: You were recently appointed to the new position of Creative Director of the Bata Shoe Museum in addition to your role as Senior Curator. Congratulations. I have been a great admirer of your work at the museum ever since my first visit twelve years ago. In the almost twenty years you have spent with The Bata Shoe Museum what have been your personal and career highlights?
Elizabeth: Thank you! To be honest, there have been so many. I think the very first question that I asked when I became the curator at the museum—why the high heel—has led to years of interesting research, the first exhibition ever done on the history of the heel, Heights of Fashion: A History of the Elevated Foot (2001), and discoveries that continue to this day. When I started to trace the origins of the heel and found that the trail led me back as far as 10th century Persia, ( I think it actually dates back further so I continue to research), people were a bit surprised that men wore the heel first and that it wasn’t a European invention. Now this research has become such common knowledge that people often ask me if I have ever heard that heels were first worn by men and that they can be traced back to Persia. That experience is very gratifying!!
I would also count the exhibition On a Pedestal: Renaissance Chopines to Baroque Heels (2009). It truly was a once in a lifetime opportunity. For the exhibition, we were able to borrow some of the rarest examples of chopines from the Correr Museum in Venice as well as incredible chopines from the Victorian and Albert in London and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston to name only a few lenders. There had never been an exhibition on chopines before and I was able to do extensive primary research and figure out how chopines were actually used in both Italy and Spain. The longstanding story about chopines was that they were specifically Venetian, that they were worn to keep women’s dresses elevated above the muck and that they were mostly worn by prostitutes but I was able to prove that in Italy they were worn by upper-class women completely concealed under the skirts of their gowns as a means of increasing the amount of textile required to make their gowns, as textile consumption was a means of expressing familial wealth and that the prostitutes who did wear them were typically “honest” courtesans who were sanctioned by the state and dressed like young wives as a means of establishing their status. I also worked on Spanish chopines and showed that while they were heavily ornamented and were fully displayed, the hems of women’s gowns skimmed the tops of these expensive platforms, they were worn for similar purposes. Spanish women concealed their clothes under a large wrap when outside and so their high ornamented platforms hinted at the luxury of their concealed outfits and likewise were a means of expressing familial wealth.
I loved doing the exhibition Roger Vivier: Process to Perfection (2012) which looked at the process of one of the most important shoe designers of the twentieth century. We have many of Vivier’s prototypes, called pullovers, from when he worked for Christian Dior from 1953 to 1963. We also have sixty-three drawings by him. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has many of the completed shoes and so for the exhibition I was able to borrow the shoes in the Met and reunite them with their drawings and pullovers. It was so interesting to consider the different stages of Vivier’s work and to highlight so many of his masterpieces.
Another highlight has been my research into sneakers. As I traced the origin of the sneaker and how it has been so central to constructions of masculinity from the middle of the 19th century to today I was so impressed by the generosity of everyone I turned to for loans and information. When Out of the Box travelled across the US and to Australia starting with the Brooklyn Museum, I never anticipated that over 550,000 visitors would come see the exhibition.
Working with Dr. Alison Matthews David on the exhibitions Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the Nineteenth Century (2014) and our upcoming exhibition Exhibit A: Crime, Fashion and Footwear and getting to do SSHRC-funded research for both has also been a highlight. As has spending time with Mr. Blahnik in artifact storage when he came for the opening of his exhibition in 2018. There are so many!
Elle: The Bata Shoe Museum is the only shoe museum in North America. It has an impressive and internationally acclaimed collection with many of the objects reflecting over 4,500 years of history. The museum is a great source of pride for Toronto. Looking forward, what are you most excited about when it comes to acquiring new objects and collections?
Elizabeth: I am interested in collecting more contemporary footwear but there are also many historic shoes that I remain determined to add to the collection as well. I want to create a more comprehensive collection of sneakers ranging from mid-nineteenth century examples to the most cutting-edge sneakers today. I would like to increase our holdings of men’s footwear. I am very interested in collecting footwear made by contemporary indigenous designers and, just putting it out there, if anyone happens to have a pair of sixteenth century Venetian or Valencian chopines I am very eager to know.
Elle: You’re an art historian by training and you’ve done a lot of research in Western and Asian art history. Before you joined the museum, you had not focused on footwear, which I think is the reason you have such a unique and important perspective when it comes to understanding culture through footwear. Share with us briefly what we can learn about society through footwear.
Elizabeth: Before accepting the job as curator of the Bata Shoe Museum I was focused on Edo period (1603-1868) Japanese prints. I was an art historian but I wasn’t interested in the unique work of art created by a lone artist for a single consumer, instead I was interested in how mass-produced prints spoke to the immediate desires of a broad populace. In particular, I was interested how prints and print culture intersected with economics, fashion and gender. When I started working with footwear I quickly realized that, like ukiyo-e, footwear too has historically been designed to sell, to meet the needs, desires and cultural obligations of many and, like Japanese prints, could enable me to take the pulse of specific moments in time and enable me to ask similar questions concerning economics, fashion and gender.
I am interested in how it has come to be that when we see someone in a pair of Birkenstocks we feel pretty confident that we could guess their stance on recycling, imagine that they voted left, and maybe even guess at their dietary practices. I am interested in why if I wear a pair of heels and walk down the street, I would go unnoticed but if a male co-worker donned my shoes and walked the same block, he would stop traffic. I guess what I am really interested in is the ways in which shoes are used to protect power structures rather than simply protect the foot.
Elle: You’re an accomplished author of eight books, with the ninth one releasing soon. Your latest book, Collab: Sneaker x Culture is releasing in October. What can you share with us about this book?
Elizabeth: The book looks at the role collaborations played in reinvigorating sneaker design and paying homage to the sneakers of the past. The book looks at how some collaborations involve very subtle alterations and modifications to existing silhouettes that like the best Japanese haiku poems deftly weave arcane historical references into the fabric of new fresh works using allusions, that can only be fully comprehended by knowledgeable connoisseurs. Other collaborations are radical rethinkings of sneaker architecture and challenge more traditional forms. While it is true that some collabs are driven only by marketing concerns and make little contribution to the art of sneaker design and have no story to tell, the best collaborations result in richly historizing and innovative design and embody stories not found in other forms of dress and that make sneakers a uniquely vital and relevant part of our culture. I also think that the current vogue for collaboration is not merely a means to diversify product and expand a brand's market share, it also speaks to larger social change. I think it is telling that we are even interested in the word “collaborate”. Perhaps we are interested in moving beyond our obsession with individualism.
Elle: In your personal life, your children are both scholars like you. Your daughter just started her graduate work in cultural studies with a focus on gender and your son is completing his undergraduate degree in computer science with an eye to working on AI and quantum computing in graduate school. What is the family conversation like at dinner?
Elizabeth: We talk about a wide range of things: politics, culture, art, gender, social justice, history, math, science, morality and AI, philosophy, home decorating, our dog, you name it! We all love theory and are constantly looking at world issues through a range of lenses. I am also extremely lucky because both kids engage with me about my work and often even proofread my writing. They are both super insightful and challenge me intellectually every day.
Elle: At Zvelle, we believe in the idea of #GlobalCitizenry. What does it mean to you?
Elizabeth: It is understanding that nothing exists or can exist in isolation.
Elle: One person living or dead you’d like to have a conversation with?
Elizabeth: Mary Wollstonecraft. I wonder what she would think about how far we have come. Her quote from 1792, “I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves” haunts me. It is so simple and clear and yet still, almost 230 years later, many women continue to be denied power over themselves.
Credits: Zvelle shoes. Top to bottom image: Rayna Flats (Eggplant).