Footwear and the Imperial Project

One of the most striking artefacts in the Bata Shoe Museum collection is this pair of 18th century women’s shoes. Their silhouette is European in style, but the upper is Indian-made. At first glance, these shoes seem to serve as examples of cultural exchange; a blending of Indian and European styles to create a beautiful pair of shoes. However, an examination of the relationship between Europe and the Indian subcontinent in the late 18th century complicates this picture as this period was characterized by increasing commercial, military and political hostility brought about by European imperialism.

These shoes began as a pair of Indian jutti before they were reconstructed as a pair of European-style pumps sometime in the 1790s. The uppers feature delicate silver and gold metallic wrapped threads couched into place, as well as white and green glass beads arranged in floral patterns. The shoes also feature delicate beetle wings. The wing-cases of Buprestidae or jewel beetles were valued for their iridescent blue-green color and remained characteristic of fine Indian craftsmanship in this period. At some point in the 1790s, the original soles were replaced with European ones including which included low heels. Existing documentation states that this pair came from England, though we have no information about their maker(s) or wearer(s).

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the British, Dutch and French had significant commercial interests in the Indian subcontinent, and were often at war with each other for dominance. Trade goods such as Indian textiles were highly sought-after, both for domestic European consumption, and for use as currency to purchase other goods from around the world. European and Indian fashions in this period also influenced each other, and a great deal of cultural exchange is visible on clothing and accessories from this period, as silhouettes, materials, and motifs were copied or transformed into new items of fashion. The cultural exchange visible in fashion did not happen against a neutral political background. Throughout the 18th century, the commercial interests of these European nations in India became increasingly political and after the 1757 Battle of Plassey, the British would eventually establish rule across the subcontinent. Britain’s rule in India, which lasted until the mid-20th century, was marked by economic exploitation and colonial violence, all done in the interests of expanding the British Empire.

It is within this complicated and dark period of history that these shoes were created which raises several questions. Who originally made these shoes, and who modified them? Who would have worn them? What was their appeal to their English wearer? Did the shoes have an ‘exoticism’ to them that made them fashionable to the English consumer? Some of these questions are difficult to answer, but one could argue that this unique pair of shoes can function as an extension of the imperial project; an Indian object deconstructed and modified for British consumption. Evidence of cultural exchange and a mix of national influences is evidenced in most of the footwear in the Bata Shoe Museum collection, and it is only through exploring the unique historical contexts behind their production that we can begin to understand what these shoes may have meant to those who produced and wore them. This pair of shoes will be featured in an upcoming exhibition at the Bata Shoe Museum titled The Great Divide: Footwear in the age of Enlightenment, which will open in late 2020. Photographs of these shoes can also be viewed in our recent publication The World At Your Feet.

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