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The Great Divide: Footwear in the Age of Enlightenment

Start Date 12 August 2020
End Date 27 March 2023
Venue Bata Shoe Museum
Location Toronto, Canada
Curator Elizabeth Semmelhack

The Age of Enlightenment was a period in European history from the end of the 17th to the end of the 18th century when philosophers and scientists wrestled with concepts of ‘human nature’ and ‘natural rights’.

Some argued that all people had inherent social and political rights. These ideas challenged longstanding social hierarchies and ushered in dreams of personal liberty and egalitarian rule. Others advocated for the reordering of social hierarchies using ‘scientific’ proof to divide people through the identification of ‘natural’ differences such as gender and race. Much of the oppression and imperialism that marked the period was supported by these ideas.

Throughout the 18th century, fashion, including footwear, was central to the ‘naturalization’ of difference in Europe. Distinctions between men and women, children and adults, Europeans and “others” became increasingly codified through clothing. Yet, European fashion was also used to blur the lines between classes as social mobility and access to consumable goods grew as a result of imperialism. A close examination of 18th century footwear reveals a great deal about the power dynamics of the period. It also gives insight into the shoes we wear today.