Amid the assemblage of shoes found within the Ryerson Research Collection is one unassuming white shoebox (FRC1994.01.030 A+B), pulled delicately from a shelf by the collection’s coordinator, and author of The Dress Detective, Ingrid Mida. The name “Thierry Mugler” is written in black sharpie along the box’s edge. Taking the box in my hands, I wonder if the shoes will embody the aura of Mugler’s 80’s femme fatale, and if the former owner of the footwear might have some shared characteristics. Thierry Mugler, or Manfred as he goes by now, is more often recognized in recent decades for his perfumes that include the likes of Angel and Womanity . But his early notoriety stemmed from his 80’s power suits and skin hugging dresses as well as his 90’s sci-fi-inspired metallics —looks seemingly predestined for a strong female character. Remaining faithful to his former female ideal, a similar style emerged almost 15 years later in his designs for Beyonce’s 2009 I AM tour, aiming to present the ‘duality of woman and warrior’ (note 1).
As evidenced in Mugler’s collections, fashion items are often accompanied by a pre-ordained persona, available for short-term adoption by the consumer. In The Cultural Biography of Things, Igor Kopytoff discusses how the commoditization of an object will always be usurped by the culture in which they find themselves and the owner of said object, “The counterforces [to commoditization] are culture and the individual, with their drive to discriminate, classify, compare and sacralize,” (note 2). However, I would argue that even before an item becomes a commodity, when a design is merely a kernel in the minds eye of a designer, the commodity has already been touched by the individual and by culture. As an observer, I can only speculate from the shoes and their label that they were made in Europe in collaboration with a shoe designer; purchased, owned, and worn for a brief period by a single owner. This would mean that the shoes had two very distinct biographies, or what Kopytoff would have further deemed “private singularisation” (note 3)– that of the design phase and that in which it becomes commodity by an owner.
It is here that I wonder: does the pre-appointed biography or personality of a garment imposed by a designer ever intersect with the identity of the consumer? Further, artifacts or items within a collection (such as the shoes I am observing) challenge the lifespan of what Kopytoff calls “terminal commodities” (note 4 ), raising their importance through the very act of preservation. Giving them public access further encourages identity-making in which to be interpreted and reinterpreted. I find myself at the latter stage, speculating and attempting to unravel a biography for a pair of shoes I have only just met.
When I lifted the lid off of the box, two medium-heeled seafoam green shoes were lying inside, top and tail. Across the very soft green leather was a series of hand-painted vine flowers in a reddish-brown. What struck me about the painted flowers was that they did not appear expertly or daintily applied. Instead, they were painted freehand: playful and not too self-conscious. The lush green leather was gorgeous to the touch, with fine creases along the toe line and only slight wearing around the toe box.
Contrary to the intact surface of the shoe, the sole showed signs of being well-loved. The three-inch heel indicated that its wearer was a pronator. When I placed the heels side-by-side on the surface of the desk, the pronation became more evident on the right foot as the right heel dipped towards the left with a mind of its own.
The wearer, with her probable high arches, managed to avoid too much erosion on the inner label, a shiny blue rectangular weave with the name Thierry Mugler written in an 80’s cursive type. The label also read, “Made in Italy” and to the right, “Paris”. To the bottom is the name of the collaborator “Linea Lidia”. The box indicated clearly that these shoes were from a time between the years 1980 and 1985. There are many unknowns about these shoes– from the inspiration drawn between Mugler and his collaborator Linea Lidia, the number of shoes made, who the painter of the flowers was and whether any of them would have anticipated the fate of their work in Fashion Research Collection.
Of all the decades to resurface, no one suspected a visit from the 80’s, but its resurgence proved that the nostalgia was genuine and, in so doing, solidified the past as artifact. Given that the shoes that I was fawning over were the ‘real deal’, the question was, who had the privilege of wearing these *ahem totally bitchin’ heels?
I envisioned the owner. Perhaps she stood at a gallery or cocktail bar, in her hand a Sea Breeze, Singapore Sling or some 80’s equivalent of exotically named drinks. From the knee down, the hem of her fitted skirt or dress grazing, in 80’s fashion, just below the knee. Her left (and more level shoe) would carry most of her weight while her right leg would rest, casually bent at the knee, the painted flower vines more clearly exposed on the exterior right of the shoe. At size 5 1/2 and narrow in shape, the owner of these shoes was light on her feet. I imagined her weaving through city crowds with stealth and a speedy clacking of the heels, her narrow calves transporting her through the busy streets of a city perhaps more outrageous than Toronto.