Serendipity, the V&A shoe show and… ‘Philosophical Toys’ by Susana Medina

Coincidences are emissaries of excitement … Follow their logic, as if it was a yellow brick road and everything will turn up ‘rosie’ in the end. That’s always been my credo even if from a statistical perspective coincidences, miracles and rare events are supposed to be everyday occurrences. Superstitious? Me? No … but …

10th June, afternoon, sunny … A tired mood mixed in with new possibilities pervades the flat. I finally have my studio for myself and can write at leisure whatever the time, and go out whenever I want, whatever the time. I have been nursing my mum for two and half months at my own flat in London (long-term, and commuting to hers in Spain), unable to do many, many a thing … A couple of days ago, my mother went to stay at my brother’s. My writing space had been re-organised to accommodate a single bed and a bedside table, the filing cabinet blocked, one shelving unit with important drawers blocked, wardrobe partially inaccessible thanks to a recently acquired reading chaiselong. Everything has to be put back in its place. And then, there’s the emotional jetlag, still adhering to every nook and cranny. And the damned backlog. I’m transitioning, I tell myself as the bell rings and a black giant delivers three large boxes, which have been sent by FedEx Economy from a warehouse in the States, Saline, Michigan.

It’s 18:03 pm. The boxes are full of identical copies of my novel Philosophical Toys, Dalkey Archive Press. A pang of anxiety curses through me, as the novel is about to come out and I haven’t been on social media at all and have barely gone out for aeons now, absorbed as I have been, with family matters. I know I have to swiftly invoke shapeshifter abilities, to shift from carer to writer to self-promoter. Easier said than done … Not having checked Facebook for ages, I wearily login, as if it that were a step in the right direction. And it is: Immediately, a picture of an extraordinary pair of golden platform shoes adorned with roses, catches my attention. It has been posted by Rosie Goldsmith, who I worked with last year at the Best of European Fiction event. @Goldrosie, a visual pun, I tell myself as I read the footer underneath the image.

Rosie Goldsmith's magical shoes

#‎todaysshoes are for tonight! Launch of SHOES show @V_and_A

A launch of a shoe exhibition at the V&A? Tonight? I frown, I laugh. Quickly, I click on the links. Oh, the coincidence. The flat’s mood shifts. It starts throbbing with serendipity. Molecules spin around 360 degrees suddenly turning into excited molecules. This coincidence shapeshifts everything. You see, Philosophical Toys is about our relationship with objects, the irrational, consumerism. It’s about shoes, shoes, there are so many musings on shoes. The main character, Nina, ends up with ninety-five pair of extraordinary shoes, ninety-five stories: her mother’s shoe collection, which makes her wonder whether her parents had a thing about shoes … … And well, Nina’s mother’s shoe collection winds up on loan at the V&A! I tell my partner about the coincidence … The sex-appeal of the inorganic … I say. Go, go, he says. What time is it? It’s 18:39. OK, I might be back after the clock strikes midnight.

In a blur, my non-chic shabby lounge clothes and loafers morph into my new event’s uniform: … a multicolour sequined jacket, beaded black T shirt, mid-calf leggings and my old mythological wedged boots …

And off I go.

To the V&A’s launch of ‘Shoes: Pleasure & Pain’.


Without an invite.

And a handbag with a few copies of my novel.

In the train, I trace the pages in my novel where the V&A appears and amazed, put bookmarks in them:

front cover Philosophical Toys

[…] as I was immersed in this strange world of cyborgs, I was contacted by the Victoria and Albert Museum with an enquiry to hire Nina Chiavelli’s shoes as part of the extension to the loan collection.

It was there, that I met Chris, Chris Hamlyn, their occasional archive photographer, an olive-skinned male with dishevelled hair and small holes in his shrunken jumpers. I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum everyday.


The Victoria and Albert loaned Nina Chiavelli’s shoes. Their offer wasn’t brilliant. But Chris and I celebrated. Had dinner out a lot, bought rare second-hand trash and gadgets, new technologies. Visited a few times the new extension of the loan collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The shoes were arranged chronologically through the help of a Canadian footwear historian who analysed their shape, colour, and material according to the socio-economics of the day. The analysis was interesting. It had been placed underneath each pair. Chris and I found something sad about these labels and the chronological arrangement, though. Would shoe lovers still look at them in awe, would they still blush like they might do in front of some shoe-shop windows? Would anybody ever suspect their stories?

I had written my mother’s story as a shoe extra for the big explanatory placard placed to the right of her shoes. I had written about the lack of records, was proud to see her name printed in big letters:


I couldn’t vindicate my father’s story, the story of a shoe fetishist. Not for the Victoria and Albert Museum. But my mother’s story had been vindicated. And with her story, the story of so many extras in the world. Or so I wanted to believe.

Pacing up and down in front of the V&A main entrance, I look at the security guard by the monumental door, wondering how the hell I’m going to get in. I look at the show’s banner: Sponsored by Clarks … And … Supported by: Agent Provocateur … And … The Worshipful Company of Cordwainers. Ah, another coincidence, the exhibition ends on my birthday, another sign in the right direction. Right. Emboldened by the strange maths of chance, I go up the V&A grand steps and confidently say to the kind security guard … I forgot the invite at home, I say. And then I whisper: Agent Provocateur. And slip through the door.

It was the right password to shoe heaven.

Rosie Goldsmith & Susana Medina at the V & A Shoes Pleasure & Pain

Giddy with excitement, surrounded by shoe lovers, cocktails, prosecco, canapés and stiletto-shaped biscuits, I scan the grand hall for known faces and straight away see the ever-charming Rosie Goldsmith, accompanied by a friend, clicking away with her camera at the floor, documenting the whirlwind of shoes. Inevitably, I bombard them with my euphoria, show them the pages from my novel where Nina’s mother shoe collection winds up at the V&A and give Rosie the first book from the well-timed boxes, before quickly levitating to ‘Shoes: Pleasure & Pain.’


Dimly lit, exquisitely curated to suggest intimacy with an array of purple, red and electric blue backdrops, I stand before the first vitrine as if I was in an enchanted forest, relishing its wunderbar references to fairy tales and legends, because, of course, it’s first things first, and fairy tales and folklore should always kick off any voyage into the kingdom of shoes. In awe, I gaze at the red ballet shoes worn by Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes, a film that haunted my childhood and wonder whether I’ll come across Dorothy’s mythical ruby slippers shoes from The Wizard of Oz, another childhood favourite.

2. Installation view of Shoes Pleasure and Pain, 13 June 2015 - 31 January 2016 (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

I’m spellbound.

You see, it is as if I was witnessing parts of my novel’s plot materialised at the V&A … It’s uncanny. A treasure trove of shoe moments, bittersweet shoes, extreme unwearable statements of status and eccentricity, the multi-cultural choice of shoes from different times largely echoes the curatorial choice made in my novel … The tragic lotus shoes, utterly bizarre platforms, majestic stilettos, fetish shoes, they all echo passages in my novel and a substantial amount of my shoe research. Unable to focus and read the wall texts, I spin around the exhibition’s boudoir atmosphere, excited to see the curator has done a lavishly eloquent job, much better than the curator envisaged in my novel and, looking at a pair of Indian long-toed shoes from the 1800s, I know I’ll have to come back to give the exhibition the time it deserves. Thinking about the fact that high heels make your buttocks protrude 25% mimicking the vertical posture typical during female arousal giving you thus extra body language, I see a pair of Ferragamo platform sandals from 1938 which have a sole composed of coloured suedes. Ha, I laugh. Lo and behold, I’m in front of Nina Chiavelli’s shoe collection, and I’m teleported to the time when I first came across it … … in my head:

It was there, in the loft, that I found these huge cardboard boxes full of shoe boxes full of exquisite shoes. Were all these exquisite shoes my mother’s? Some of them had never been worn. They were completely new. Others had their bottom tips slightly worn. Sandals, stilettos, slippers, platforms, marabou mules, high-heeled, flat, orthopaedic, playful, sensible shoes, threatening spikes, laced boots. I opened the boxes, making sure each pair ended up in its box. I listened to the stories these shoes suggested. I took off my slightly smelly trainers, tried a pair of invisible plastic sandals on, tried some other shoes on, but they were all far too small. I looked at my feet as if I had never seen them before, observed their hairy toes, their unvarnished rough nails, bowed down in praise at the effort humanity had made to soften the impact of ugly feet through beautiful hocus-pocus. I held a red shoe up to the beam of light coming from the crack on the roof and marvelled at the architectural beauty of the design, the sensuous line of the arch, the sensual beauty of the natural red coloured leather, the excess of the pointed toe, the undulating lines. Then I held a perfectly poised stiletto, the heel the height of absurdity. I realised that I was seeing these shoes in terms of form and texture. I was seeing them as sculptures. These were ingratiating shoes. Flirtatious, heroic, romantic, delicate, witty, frivolous, aggressive, defiant, unwearable. They were irresistible. There was something redeeming about them, even about the ones that were tacky. Function? Comfort? These were sculptures of hypothetical utility. These shoes pointed to playfulness, to allure, to excess. Some of them were a utopia of androgyny translated into a shoe, others a dream of simplicity, yet others were revoltingly girlie, a walking parody, a dark nightmare of pinkness so sickly feminine that they could only possibly be worn with really hairy legs.

Were these shoes just shoes or were they more than shoes? Shoes have acquired the status of mythological objects. You put a pair of shoes in an empty space and a story soon begins to emanate. If clothes became limp when not worn, shoes were three dimensional forever, like hats. If a man could mistake his wife for a hat, didn’t we see in shoes a particular presence where sex, age and personality were quickly arrived at? I counted the shoes. Ninety-five pairs, ninety-five stories. I looked at an ornate slipper. At a lime green sequin stiletto. I felt sorry all these shoes didn’t fit me. Ah, the scoundrels. There it was, the immateriality of thought translated into matter, a collective fantasy of excess sculpted into skin-like leather.

IS.6749; IS.6770
IS.6749; IS.6770

If one shoe might not change your life, a shoe exhibition can certainly expand your neural connections, enlightening you about the historical politics of shoes, the irrational and the sex-appeal of footwear intelligence … which, believe me, if you really delve deeply into it, it’s bound to propel you into all sorts of fascinating directions … … You must speak to Helen … Helen Persson, the curator, Rosie says. She’s Swedish … But I understand ‘Finnish’ … Really? I say as I hear Melancholy Mareet’s voice, the artist who did the voiceover for my film short-film, Leather-bound Stories (co-directed with Derek Ogbourne), an offspring from my novel, who happens to be Finnish too … I don’t say anything … And then, another coincidence saunters into my neural networks.

… The spell is still there. The serendipity of the V&A’s ‘Shoe: Pleasure and Pain’ and Philosophical Toys … shapeshifted my day with a magical trail of coincidences worthy of fairy tales … Thank you, fairy godmothers …



You may want to partake in serendipity by exploring both exhibition and novel:

“Shoes: Pleasure and Pain” is at the V&A from June 13, 2015 until January 31, 2016; entry £12 (concessions apply)

Philosophical Toys, Susana Medina, Dalkey Archive Press, 2015

All images © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


@V_and_A @SusanaMedina_ @Dalkey_Archive @clarksshoes @TheMissAP & @Cordwainers #vamShoes #TuesdayShoesday


‘Philosophical Toys’ book launch:

Friday 17th July, 7.30 pm

Introduced by Lorna Scott Fox & Joanna Walsh

9.15 pm FILM SCREENING: ‘Leather-bound Stories’ Dir. Susana Medina & Derek Ogbourne, 26 mins

The Function Room, upstairs at The Cock Tavern, 23 Phoenix Rd, King’s Cross, London NW1 1HB

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