Monday, February 10, 2014

The Beauty of Beads

By Elizabeth Semmelhack, Senior Curator

Small, luminous and colourful, beads have been used to decorate footwear around the world for centuries. Historically beads have been crafted from a wide variety of natural sources such as pearls but even in ancient times some of the most desirable beads were made of glass. From the very beginning beads were more than simple decorative objects, they were an integral part of trade. Glass beads were a staple European trade good during the Age of Exploration and their eager embrace by people the Europeans traded with transformed the fashion across the globe. The beaded footwear from North America is a testament to this and to the versatility of beads and the inventiveness of beaders.  

Lakota, 1900. Moccasins with upper solidly beaded with white, rose and navy geometrical design on blue background. 

Among the most exquisite beaded shoes in the collection are the beaded-soled footwear made by Lakota women in the second half of the 19th century.  Not only are the uppers of these shoes fully beaded but the soles are as well leading some to suggest that they were never intended to be worn.  Some have even suggested that this type of footwear was made exclusively for funerary wear. However, every pair in our collection shows ample evidence of wear both inside the shoe and out establishing a much more celebratory function for these artifacts.  This is corroborated by late 19th century photographic evidence showing men wearing beaded-soled moccasins at important gatherings.  What is inarguable about these shoes is that they were painstakingly crafted labours of love.   Whether decorating a pair of 19th century Lakota shoes or embellishing the uppers of 18th century slippers, beads add a shimmer of colour that never fades and always fascinates.  

Here are a sample of other shoes from the BSM collection which use beads as a form of decoration.

Women’s pumps from the late 1700s are a created from a tiny beetle wing. We believe that the shoes which are made from embroidered linen were made in India and worn in England.
Boots such as these were part of the elaborately beaded and symbolically complex royal regalia that proclaimed the status of the oba or king of the Yoruba peoples.Nigeria, 1900.
Elaborately beaded shoes embellished with fresh water pearls. The peacocks on the vamps suggest that they were intended for royal wear as the peacock was an important royal symbol, and the beaded cypress trees symbolize longevity.
Persia, mid-19th century.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Walking Through Winter

By BSM Senior Curator Elizabeth Semmelhack
This winter has been one full of more than the average amount of ice and snow  here in Toronto.  However, difficult winters are nothing new. Indeed snow is a perennial challenge across the globe and navigating through it has been dealt with in ingenious ways by different cultures over the years, a fact illustrated by looking at circumpolar footwear.
The Museum has an exceptionally fine collection of artifacts from the circumpolar regions of the world.  Most of these pieces were collected by the intrepid researchers Professors Jill Oakes and Rick Riewe from the University of Manitoba. Throughout the 1980s and 90s they travelled throughout the Canadian Arctic, Alaska, across Russia, Sweden, Finland and Norway as well as Greenland doing research into the making of footwear and collecting pieces for the  Museum. 
One of the most interesting things revealed by their research was that although the circumpolar climate offers similar challenges and resource availability, the range of footwear traditionally produced in these regions is strikingly different.   Some of that difference can be found in the wide range of innovative ways of dealing with the realities of arctic living such as staying warm or having traction but most of the differences are related to cultural diverse expressions of gender and identity through dress, making it clear that form never simply follows function when it comes to dress.   

This week's #bsmshoeoftheday looked at some of the many forms of footwear that have been created to help different societies deal with ice and snow.

Made from a single piece of bent wood that is tightly laced with babiche, snowshoes spread the wearer's body weight over a large surface area, making it possible to walk across deep snow.
Snowshoes, Canada, 1850s - 1880s

Most Inuit prefer waterproof skin kamiks instead of contemporary rubberized boots because the animal skin is porous and breathable which does not allow condensation to build up and permits perspiration to escape, reducing the amount of moisture build-up inside the boots. Kamiks made by Ida Karpik from Pangnirtung, Baffin Island, Nunavet in 1987.

Japanese snowfall can average up to twenty centimetres in a winter season; this special boot was developed to deal with the accumulation. This tall boot called fumidawara is made of rice straw and is used to tread paths through the snow around the house. Japan, 1986.

Silk and mink carriage boots from the United States c.1900