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This Exhibition Explores the Allure of Retro Footwear

80s footwear, Bata Shoe Museum x Designlines

The Bata Shoe Museum takes us on a ride to the 1980s, immersing visitors in their mall-themed exhibition Dressed to Impress

In partnership with Bata Shoe Museum
Photography by Margaret Mulligan

You can almost smell the hairspray. Shoulder pads, angular lines, bold colours and a more-is-more approach define ’80s style for many of us. But there was so much more. Interior design spanned the gamut of pretty and demure (dusty rose and ruffles) to brazen and unseen (brass, glass, neon). The ’80s consumerist culture was fueled by advertisements, music videos and films designed to sell the idea of ‘having it all.’ The mall, itself, is an iconic part of the style experience of that time. In Bata Shoe Museum’s inventive exhibit Dressed to Impress: Footwear & Consumerism in the 1980s, curator Nishi Bassi walks us through the era via the most emblematic fashion piece of all – our footwear.

Bata Shoe Museum
Bata Shoe Museum recreates a 1980s shopping mall for their exhibition, Dressed to Impress: Footwear & Consumerism in the 1980s, curated by Nishi Bassi.

In fashion and interiors, the ’80s heavily influence styles today. From brass accents, rounded furniture, pastels and preppy florals to Miami-Vice-style neon and Lucite, everything, it seems, from the decade of excess is back. Even Pantone’s colour of the year for 2024 is a hue incredibly indicative of the time – Peach Fuzz.

Toronto Museums
Thierry Mugler Apollo Jelly Shoes (seen in Gold) inspired a trend for inexpensive, mass-produced jellies.

Today, design hallmarks from the ’80s, including the ubiquitous curved archway, reign supreme in residential and commercial design. Bold colour, tropical plants, and multi-toned marble surfaces offer up an expressive antidote to our more recent love affair with pale woods and white walls.

A walk through the immersive exhibit reveals the history of dozens of iconic ’80s footwear that are still running (pun intended) or have been re-issued in recent years. The stories are rooted in a time when status and symbols were king, and trends took off like wildfire.

Bata Shoe Museum 80s Footwear
Bally pumps, Swiss, 1980-1989 (top); Tokio Kumagai pumps, Japanese/French, 1980-1983.

Women wearing white Reebok sneakers with socks over their pantyhose (think Melanie Griffith in Working Girl) all began with a New York City transit strike. Walking to work quickly took off as a fitness trend. Fun and colourful PVC jellies, including high-end versions from Jean-Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler, as well as less expensive options developed into a huge trend then (and are making a comeback now). And, for the working woman, low heels were all the rage. These pretty yet practical heels were de rigeur for women, who were now in the office more than ever before.

On November 24, 1989 Reebok released the Pump, which featured a lightweight internal inflation mechanism that allowed the wearer to customize the fit of the sneaker.

On the other side of the exhibit, an homage to sneaker culture and its history is truly fascinating with originals of so many iconic styles. In 1984, rookie Michael Jordan wore a prototype of what would become the Nike Air Jordan 1, which was controversial as the colour was not consistent with the Chicago Bulls uniforms. This was a major moment in sneaker culture. Jordan went on to sign the biggest and most influential deal between a major shoe brand and a professional athlete, paving the way for countless celebrity–fashion brand collaborations to come.

Bata Shoe Musuem, 80s footwear
In the exhibit’s cinema – inspired by a retro mall movie theatre – a film loops ads, interviews and television clips all highlighting iconic ’80s footwear.

The ’80s footwear exhibit is a welcome trip down memory lane for those who lived through the decade, and an eye-opening retrospective for the younger crowd. The exhibition runs until March 16, 2025. BATASHOEMUSEUM.CA

Categories: Arts & Culture

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