Why You Need To Visit The Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto

Elton John's Ferradini Platforms, Italian, 1972-1975 | © Bata Shoe Museum
Elton John's Ferradini Platforms, Italian, 1972-1975 | © Bata Shoe Museum
With Toronto’s firm status as one of Canada’s fashion, consumer, and cultural hotspots, it’s no surprise the city is also home to a museum dedicated solely to shoes. Within the world-class Bata Shoe Museum, visitors traverse 4,500 years of footwear history as the shoes reveal stories of cultures across time and space. Whether you’re a history buff, an art lover, fashion enthusiast (or all three), here are just a few of the reasons why the Bata Shoe Museum is a must-see locale.

Sonja Bata’s Love of Shoes

Toronto residents have Sonja Bata to thank for the BSM’s existence. Since the 1940s, Mrs. Bata has traveled the world collecting shoes of every type imaginable to craft a collection that encompasses both the ordinary and the extraordinary. As a leading figure in the shoe industry, her business travels allowed her to build one the world’s strongest footwear collections, and with it the first shoe museum in North America. By 1979, Mrs. Bata’s collection had grown larger than private storage space would allow, so the Bata family established the Bata Shoe Museum Foundation. The Foundation funded field trips to collect and research cultures where traditions are changing quickly, including North American indigenous cultures, and places in both Asia and Europe. Their main mission, however, was to create an international hub for footwear research which also housed the BSM’s collection.

On May 6th, 1995, the Bata Shoe Museum officially opened its doors as a world-class museum with a highly specialised collection.

The Building

Inspired by the concept of a shoebox, acclaimed Canadian architect Raymond Moriyama created this award-winning ‘gem of a museum’ that hosts Bata’s collection within a sprawling five-floor structure on Bloor Street. State-of-the-art storage and inventive exhibit lighting complement the ‘floating’ staircase, considered to be the architectural centrepiece of the space.

Bata Shoe Museum © Steve Harris/Flickr

The (Enormous) Collection

The BSM has 13,000 unique shoes and related artefacts in their collection and over 1,000 are on display at any give time. Using footwear as an entry point into anthropological study of cultures around the world, the BSM weaves a cultural narrative that spans the globe. Noted strengths of the museum’s collection include their Circumpolar, 18th century European, Indigenous North American and Asian footwear collections.

The Galleries

Celebrating both the style and function of footwear, the BSM’s collections are spread across four galleries. Visitors can explore everything from Chinese bound-foot shoes and ancient Egyptian gladiator sandals, to sexy stilettos and glamorous platforms.

Interior View, Bata Shoe Museum © Daderot/WikiCommons

The semi-permanent exhibition, All About Shoes: Footwear Through the Ages, is a comprehensive overview exploring over 4,500 years of history, going beyond the aesthetics of footwear to show how shoes can reveal social, cultural, and even political developments throughout time. In addition to the historical artefacts, All About Shoes also includes a collection of 20th century celebrity-owned footwear. The three other galleries feature rotating exhibitions.

Interior View, Bata Shoe Museum © Daderot/WikiCommons

Temporary Exhibitions

The BSM is committed to hosting rotating exhibitions that are engaging, relevant, and reflective of footwear culture. Whether you like or loathe heels, visitors will appreciate Standing Tall: The Curious History of Men in Heels. This exhibition, open until October 2017, challenges our preconceived notions of who wears heels – and why. Exploring the history of men in heels from the early 1600s to present-day, on display are the heeled footwear of everyone from privileged aristocracy to hyper-sexualized rock stars. Expect rare examples of men’s heeled footwear from the 17th and 18th centuries, mid-19th century military boots, cowboy boots of the 1930s, and biker boots of the 1940s. Music lovers won’t want to miss John Lennon’s original 1960s Beatle boot, and Elton John’s platforms from the 1970s – all sourced from within the museum’s massive collection.

Elton John's Ferradini Platforms, Italian, 1972-1975 © Bata Shoe Museum

Its Place In Museum-Theft Lore

In January of 2006, the BSM joined the ranks of museums that have fallen victim to art and artefact theft – including Paris’ Musée du Louvre, Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, and Oslo’s National Gallery. On January 22, 2016, a pair of shoes valued at $160,000 were stolen from one of the exhibits. The shoes, a pair of rare Indian 19th century shoes, were embroidered with gold and encrusted with diamonds and rubies. At one point, they were worn by a Hyderabad prince before the region amalgamated into India. Without their historical context, the shoes – priceless to the museum – had no street value. What’s more, as BSM curator Elizabeth Semmelhack explained to the Globe & Mail at the time of the theft, even the diamonds – cloudy and not properly cut – were worthless on the market.

Rumours of the potential role of organized crime swirled, and the Bata family offered a $25,000 reward. The following month, in February of 2016, a customer brought in images of the shoes to print at a photo shop; the staff recognized the shoes, and notified the police. A ‘cloak and dagger’ drop-off arrangement was made, and the shoes were finally returned. The thief was tried, and pleaded guilty to the crime, receiving a house-arrest sentence. Luckily for the BSM, all’s well that ends well in this case of stolen shoes.

Pay-What-You-Can Thursday Evenings

With extended hours on Thursday nights and pay-what-you-can admission, a trip to the BSM need not break the bank. Visit the museum between 5PM – 8PM on Thursday evenings for a cultural (and affordable) night out.