Sole Purpose: Loafing Through Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum

Over 12,500 pairs on display from six continents.  
Toronto Bata Shoe Museum Padukas Canada
Embellished mojaris and solid silver padukas from India are among the most expensive pairs of shoes at Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum. Photo: Zou Zheng/Xinhua Press/Corbis/Imagelibrary

If you peeped into my shoe cupboard, you’d think I was Imelda Marcos. My countless pairs of Chinese silk shoes, jute brogues, PVC boots, reindeer Uggs, Japanese wooden geta, and embroidered mojaris, could compete with the Philippines’s former First Lady’s extravagant footwear collection. And yet, here I am in Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum feeling like a bit of a pauper. The Canadian institution displays over 12,500 pairs from six continents, walking guests through the 4,500-year history of footwear.

Window-shopping through history, I quickly found myself classifying the pairs into “want it” and “want not” categories. The earliest shoes, woven out of vegetable fibre, were too coarse; the Cherokee moccasins dyed dark with walnut shells too beady; the towering ’70s platforms too retro; and the sneakers too pedestrian for me. But the spiked wooden chestnut-crushing clogs? They were just my style. Never mind that I had no chestnut orchard or enemies to crush.

Collections at the museum keep changing. Current exhibits include “Fashion Victims”, which details the pleasure and perils of 19th-century fashion when women wore tight corsets and impossibly narrow footwear and men stepped into ballrooms in clothes made with poison-laced dyes (mercury and arsenic was frequently used to colour fabrics and tint shoes). Another selection called “Collected in the Field” introduces visitors to shoe-making traditions from around the world while “Beauty, Identity and Pride” puts Native North American footwear in the spotlight. I got the chance to view a retrospective on Roger Vivier, the creator of the famous stiletto, as well as an exhibit on India’s rich textile heritage, where I discovered that our ancestors, kings in particular, had quite a foot fetish.

I found myself drooling over a pair of 250-year-old wedge-heeled mojaris belonging to Hyderabad’s Nizam Sikander Jah. It was meticulously embroidered with gold thread and studded with diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires. The heels were lined with lush velvet and silver braids. Then I looked at the price tag and nearly slipped: Its estimated price was a cool CAD1,60,000 (a little under ₹80 lakh). The pair was even stolen once, but was recovered after a nationwide hunt in Canada.

The five-storey museum was the brainchild of Sonja Bata, wife of Thomas J. Bata who founded the shoe megabrand. Sonja believed that footwear was not just a style statement, but also a sociological indicator of the times. At the Bata Shoe Museum, each shoe tells a story, each hand-embroidered seam is a cultural narrative, and each heel is a feat of an era. Some exhibits were regal, others painful to imagine, and some just plain fun (such as John Lennon’s boots and Elton John’s monogrammed silver platform boots). I spent over two hours browsing, and left with a memorable history lesson and a spring in my step (daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m., except Sun when it opens at noon, and Thurs when it stays open until 8 p.m.; entry CAD14/₹695, students with ID CAD8/₹397, children between 5 and 17 CAD5/₹248, children under 5 free).

Appeared in the April 2015 issue as “Sole Purpose”.

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