Beautiful lotus shoes at Chelsea Library

Chelsea’s fashion and costume collection is like a Matroyshka doll: exploring one subject opens up a whole world of fascination, that reveals something else remarkable, and then a further something else that is even more fascinating. 

This is just what happened when we browsed the shelves for books on shoes: within  the History of Footwear section, we found some fascinating books on Chinese slippers and the tradition of foot-binding – more specifically, “Splendid Slippers: a thousand years of an erotic tradition”, by Beverley Jackson (10 Speed Press, Berkeley, California: 1997), a (very informative) book full of beautiful photographs of exquisite “lotus shoes”, so pretty that we couldn’t resist scanning a few for the blog….

Young girls would undergo the painful process of foot-binding between five and seven years old, and for the rest of her life wear tiny lotus slippers, beautifully hand-embroidered.  A wealthy woman would have may pairs in a variety of colours and styles:

Splendid Slippers: a thousand years of an erotic tradition. Jackson Beverley, Ten Speed Press, California: 1997
Wedding and special occasion shoes. From Splendid Slippers, by Beverley Jackson
Splendid Slippers: a thousand years of an erotic tradition. Jackson, Beverley, 10 Speed Press, California: 1997
Shoes for the different stages of mourning, from undyed sackcloth at the top to silk and embroidery at the bottom. From Splendid Slippers, by Beverley Jackson

The owners of the slippers would spend many painstaking hours embroidering their tiny shoes with glorious designs: birds, flowers, animals, insects, household objects, symbols and patterns, all in vibrant colours. Even the soles of the shoes were decorated in case anyone should anyone catch a glimpse  of them as the wearer sat down:

Splendid Slippers: a thousand years of an erotic tradition. Jackson, Beverley, 10 Speed Press, California: 1997
Slippers with beautiful soles. From Splendid Slippers by Beverley Jackson
Splendid Slippers: a thousand years of an erotic tradition. Jackson, Beverley, 10 Speed Press, California: 1997
Slippers with black cat. From Splendid Slippers by Beverley Jackson.

The reasons for footbinding in China were culturally, socially, and sexually complex. A woman who had an unappealing face but three-inch long feet would have been deemed highly marriagable. Women with tiny feet were often confined to their house or sedan chair, uanable to walk far,  and they also, through the process of their foot-binding, showed that they were able to endure great pain and follow orders well. Notice in this picture how much smaller the feet of the women are compared to the little boy’s:

Splendid Slippers: a thousand years of an erotic tradition. Jackson, Beverley, 10 Speed Press, California: 1997
Chinese family. From Splendid Slippers by Beverley Jackson

Of course, these beautiful lotus shoes hid crippled, useless feet and caused a lifetime of suffering. The agonies suffered by women with bound feet are graphically documented in Jackson’s book.

Woman's foot crippled by footbinding. From Splendid Slippers by Beverley Jackson.
Woman’s foot crippled by footbinding. From Splendid Slippers by Beverley Jackson.

However, is is also notable that Western shoes are not always remarkable for their comfort either…

From Shoes: a history from sandlas to sneakers, ed, by Giorgio Riello and Peter McNeil. Oxford International Publishers, Oxford: 2006
Vivienne Westwood black patent leather platforms with spikes. From Shoes: a history from sandals to sneakers, ed. by Giorgio Riello and Peter McNeil.

All the books used to write this post are listed below, and there are plenty more available in Chelsea Library’s fashion and costume collection…

  • Jackson, Beverley. Splendid Slippers: a thousand years of an erotic tradition. 10 Speed Press, California: 1997
  • Riello, Giorgio and Peter McNeil 9eds). Shoes: a history from sandals to seneakers. Berg, Oxford: 2006
  • Walford, Jonathan. The seductive shoe: four centuries of fashion footwear. Thames & Hudson, London: 2007
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