Anne Tilby is going a step beyond for women’s footwear fashions

Anne Tilby

From ‘Loub-jobs’ and Chinese binds to back-breaking platforms, artist Anne Tilby had no shortage of inspiration for her exhibition around women’s shoes, writes Colette Sheridan.

THE fetishization of shoes does women no favours. From teetering in vertiginous heels to wearing ‘kinky’ boots, we suffer for our attempts at sex appeal.

British mixed media artist, Anne Tilby, has brought her touring exhibition, Tortured Soles, to Waterville gallery, Tech Amergin. It is a humorous exhibition that has been described as showing kitsch unwearable shoes made out of everything from horse manure to painted shells. It also has a serious undercurrent, aiming to subtly challenge women’s fashion choices of wearing high heels given the damage they can cause to feet.

The exhibition was prompted by Tilby’s own foot surgery. Having done cross country running and Alpine skiing, wearing hard boots, as well as having worn “lots of stupid shoes like platforms”, Tilby’s feet were described by her husband as being like two large pieces of root ginger.

Anne Tilby’s exhibition in currently on in Waterville, Co Kerry.
Anne Tilby’s exhibition in currently on in Waterville, Co Kerry.

When she went to see a foot surgeon, she was told that well over half of all women wear shoes that are the wrong shape for their feet. It is a first world pedi-crisis, mainly affecting women. But vanity has no bounds.

“There is an increasingly popular procedure called the ‘Loub job’ (after shoe designer, Christian Louboutin) which involves pumping collagen into the soles of the feet so that women may wear even higher heels for €500 a throw,” says Tilby.

While the ‘pedi-crisis’ can be blamed on male fashion designers, Tilby says: “It is women who choose to buy restrictive foot wear. There’s lots of female shoe designers and gay ones as well.”

From Chinese foot-binding which was practised until the early twentieth century to today’s impossibly high spiky heels, the female foot has taken quite a hammering. The main purpose of foot binding was to restrict the growth of feet so they didn’t exceed three or four inches. Today’s fashion victims often develop bunions as a result of ill- fitting footwear.

Anne Tilby’s exhibition in currently on in Waterville, Co Kerry.
Anne Tilby’s exhibition in currently on in Waterville, Co Kerry.

Tilby had to have the bones in her feet broken and reset. “In my case, it wasn’t specifically bunions. My toes were bent or curling. I was quite cowardly about getting my feet operated on. I put it off three times. They had to do quite a lot of work on me involving pins and staples.”

The mass production of shoes, manufactured for the standard foot shape, has resulted in cheap, bad quality foot wear, says Tilby. Now, women own lots of shoes “whereas my mother in the 1940s had two pairs — one for everyday wear and one for Sunday best — made for her using her individual foot last. “

To vent a little about shoes, Tilby decided to make a ‘shit shoe’ using horse manure. “I’m quite used to mucking out at stables. So I filled a bag with horse pooh. After all, cow dung was used in the walls of traditional houses to cement the plaster. Dung stops smelling after it’s dried out. So my horse manure shoe doesn’t smell. It was like working with clay. I mixed a bit of PVA (poly vinyl acrylic), which is like a water-based glue, with the manure.”

Anne Tilby’s exhibition in currently on in Waterville, Co Kerry.
Anne Tilby’s exhibition in currently on in Waterville, Co Kerry.

Tilby, whose varied career has involved the design of TV shows, Fr Ted and Spitting Image, as well as dressing rock stars including Tina Turner, made a shoe for artist, Tracey Emin. “Because she’s from Margate (a seaside resort), I covered a shoe in shells which I covered in pastel nail varnish. The result is like one of those funny souvenirs you get in seaside towns.”

In all, Tilby has created about 25 shoes including a classic court shoe made using of coils of blonde hair, in honour of Marilyn Monroe.

When she was exhibiting Tortured Soles in London’s Soho some years ago, Tilby was approached by some burkha-clad women who asked her if they could try on the shoes. “They even asked me if I could make some for them, for their wedding day.”

Tortured Soles is at Tech Amergin in Waterville until April 18.

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