The Museum of London is putting some Shakespeare-themed shoes on display in its Docklands branch. Punningly named “Treading the Bards“, the exhibit features centuries of footwear donned by actors and written about by Shakespeare.
One pair of Elizabethan slip-on shoes were found on the site of the Rose Theater. Another was once worn by famous actor and inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula Sir Henry Irving.
The earliest shoe was preserved in the damp mud of Southwark and is still decorated with pinked zig-zagged patterning – an embellishment common enough that in The Taming of the Shrew it is remarked upon when a servant’s “pumps were all unpink’d i’ the heel.” The pressures on actors at the time are highlighted by the hole at the toe end – deliberately cut to accommodate a painful bunion.
The later shoes were worn by a triumvirate of actors; each considered the greatest thespian of their day. Edmund Kean’s tasselled boots accompanied fiery performances as Richard III in England and America in the early 19th century. Samuel Phelps’ bright red silk boots costumed Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII, his final stage performance, in 1878. And Sir Henry Irving’s exquisitely decorative Elizabethan-styled shoes were worn as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing in 1882.
Oh hey Shakespeare called shoes “pumps”. I did not know that. Although it would appear he wasn’t talking about the standard closed-toe slip-on heel that I refer to with the word.
Anyway, the museum’s Fashion and Decorative Arts Curator Hilary Davidson (cool damn job, sister) points out that these long-gone actors imbued the shoes with their physical presence. Between the bunion cut-outs and the tread patterns, you can envision how they moved, their walks, limps, drags, not to mention their overall dimensions.
Besides, shoes! Pretty! Okay maybe not so much the mudlark one, but the rest are still beautiful in design and fabric.