Shoes: Inside Out – Our relationship with footwear revealed

A new exhibition at the Arch in Winchester, UK, that traces the social history of the nation through 60 pairs of shoes, on show 24 November 2023 – 6 March 2024 at The Arc in Winchester, United Kingdom.

From the functional and practical to the fashionable and extravagant, shoes have played an intriguing role in our social history and modern lives. They can tell us about a person’s work, leisure choices, status, and aspirations – but the story is not always straightforward. Conformity to gender stereotypes is blurred, power statements conceal repression, and the utilitarian merges with the frippery.

SHOES: Inside Out is an exhibition featuring footwear from our past, dating as far back as 11 AD to the present. Through the themes of work, protect, play, empower, transform, identify and aspire, a highlight selection of 70 pairs of shoes from our collections, explore how shoes have shaped, and have been shaped by, society. From Georgian high society shoes to 1970s platforms and current high-end designer heels to everyday boots there is a shoe to fit all interests. 

The exhibition also tells the history of high heels, which originated in Assyria (modern western Asia) around 700BC, when heeled riding boots coincided with the invention of the stirrup. This enabled male soldiers to sit more firmly in the saddle while holding heavier weapons. Elizabeth I often wore high-heeled riding boots to emphasise her ‘masculinity’. She may have worn them at Tilbury for her pre-Armada speech: “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king.”

The oldest item is a 1.000 year old ‘skate’ shoe from the late Anglo-Saxon period. The most recent is a 2022 Converse high-top trainer inspired by 1920’s basketball player Chuck Taylor before being sported by stars from James Dean to Kurt Cobain. The skate shoe, which would have been attached to a leather cloth wrapped around the foot, was perfect for gliding over frozen rivers and ponds in the 11th century, or for walking through snow. Archaeologists have recently proved that the skate part of the shoe was made from the bone of a sheep.

Alongside the footwear, a display of high-definition x-rays allow us to glimpse the story within. They uncover developments in the shoes’ construction and reveal an ethereal reminiscence of a life lived.

Source: Tara McKinney Marinus, modern and contemporary art and design historian & curator: “Footwear tells you more about a person than their clothes. Boots may indeed be ‘made for walkin’, but their history tells us so much more.”

Shoes: Inside Out. Our relationship with footwear revealed
Date: 24 November 2023 – 6 March 2024
Location: The Arc, Jewry St, Winchester, UK.

Opening times:
Monday – 09:30 – 17:00

Tuesday – 09:30 – 17:00

Wednesday – 09:30 – 17:00

Thursday – 09:30 – 17:00

Friday – 09:30 – 17:00

Saturday – 09:30 – 17:00

Sunday – 11:00 – 17:00

Find more information here.

1) X-ray / Photograph, green silk, beaded women’s evening shoe, c1920’s

X-ray credit: Angela Middleton, Archaeological Conservator, Historic England
2) ‘Alti’ shoes by Christian Louboutin, circa 2010, featuring the designer’s trademark red soles
and a studded uppers inspired by punk rock.
Courtesy of Hampshire Cultural Trust. © Hampshire Cultural Trust