Inside the Collection

Design underground #3- Bootilicious!

Footwear enthusiasts looking at shoes from the collection
Photography by Sotha Bourn © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved

The Bootilicious behind-the-scenes tour revealed stories of everyday, famous and infamous Australians through looking at what they wore on their feet. On Monday August 9, as part of the events, talks and tours program for Sydney Design 2010, I teased out some of the more unusual background stories in an extended tour for a group of 11 footwear enthusiasts.

I started the tour with the theme of weddings and childhood. The 1882 marriage of Hannah Palser Prior to Alfred Adlam was related through her wedding shoes and wedding dress. The Museum is fortunate to have her complete outfit, including accessories that demonstrate what a 19th Century woman wore to get married. Touching briefly on Anna Blaxland’s wedding shoes I commented on how the stories relating to Anna were all told from the perspective of whose daughter, wife and mother she was rather than any of her own achievements!

Generations of Australian children entered a world of make believe wearing costumes from A L Lindsay and Co, including super heroes, characters from the Wild West and their favourite TV programs. The Lindsays ensured the fantasy life of girls was well catered for in costumes such as this Annie Oakley outfit.

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Photography by Sotha Bourn © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved

This set of doll’s clothing and matching shoes, were made by Zelmer Steeper for her daughter Beverly’s doll Hannah, a much treasured childhood possession. The doll’s clothes are part of a much larger collection which includes outfits, lingerie and accessories made by Zelma for Beverley’s wedding and lovingly preserved by Beverley to document her life.

I showed the group a photograph of Elsie White, aged 29 wearing her rollerskates in 1913. Again these rollerskates are part of a collection of outfits and accessories which tell the story of generations of the White family at Saumarez homestead in Armidale, now a National Trust property. The feisty Elsie ran the property after the death of her father until her own death in 1981 at age 97, preserving both the contents of her house and her family’s life.

A tour of the footwear collection is not complete without mention of the Joseph Box collection represented this day by shoes worn by Queen Victoria’s sons Prince Arthur and Prince Albert Victor. The group inspected the shoes in detail, impressed with the fineness of the stitching and quality of the craftsmanship.

A whistle-stop tour of the more famous residents in the collection began with Queen Victoria’s innovative gusset boots. These prototype boots with their tightly coiled, cotton covered, wire gusset, (patented in 1837) were presented to Queen Victoria by their inventor, the shoemaker Joseph Sparkes Hall. Unfortunately for Sparkes Hall, the invention of vulcanised rubber in the 1840s ensured the demise of his design for elastic sided boots. Blundstone lovers everywhere owe him a great debt of gratitude.

I showed the group more footwear with famous connections, such as cricket boots signed by Don Bradman, the Ugg boots worn by Michael Caton as Dale Kerrigan in the film ‘The Castle’, ‘Million Dollar Mermaid’ Annette Kellerman’s ballet slipper, shoes from Mardi Gras costumes worn by Philipa Playford and Ron Muncaster, platform boots worn by food journalist Cherry Ripe in the 1970s, aviatrix Lores Bonney‘s boots and the Pink Diamonds outfit and shoes worn by Nicole Kidman as Satine in ‘Moulin Rouge’. The diversity of the Museum’s collection embraces not just design and fashion but an extensive collection of material relating to performing arts and people who have made a significant impact upon Australian life.

Sydney Design tour participants looking at footwear from the collection
Photography by Sotha Bourn © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved

Prefaced with a language and nudity warning, I showed photographs and spoke of the unusual collection belonging to Elizabeth Burton, (no not that Elizabeth Burton), Australian burlesque dancer and strip-tease artist known for her signature act, ‘Miss Modesty’. The Moulin Rouge costume shown to the group is accompanied by a pair of high heeled mules described by Ms Burton as ‘follow me home and f*** me shoes’.

Sydney Design tour participants looking at footwear from the collection
Photography by Sotha Bourn © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved

A favourite with the group was the material relating to the knitter Myra Mogg. The fineness and regularity of the stitching in her prize winning outfit and shoes was much admired by the group who were also amazed by the tale of her walking the seven miles to and from work in Mudgee every day in the 1930s, knitting as she walked!

The tour finished with a sobering story and a frivolous one. I showed the group the boots and performance costume of William Shakespeare; 1970s Australian pop star and beloved of Countdown watching female teeny boppers. While his costume and platform boots are a classic example of the excesses and high camp of 70s glam rock, his career is a salient reminder to blink-and-you-miss-it stars of television talent shows how transitory fame is and how quickly the public forgets.

To the cries of ‘Show us what’s in the box’ I also unveiled……… the costume worn by Tina Sparkle in ‘Strictly Ballroom’. With sequined dancing shoes and an over the top outfit, the ‘Fruity Rhumba’ costume seemed a suitably fun and life affirming way to end the tour.

Rebecca Bower, Curator

Editor’s note: I received a very nice email from one of the tour participants who informed me she has also written a blog on Rebecca’s ‘Bootilicious’ tour. You can read her take on the ShoeMistress website here.

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