Shoes seem to have been a bit of a theme in this blog this week. I was thinking about this when I suddenly remembered that I had made a small quilt about shoes for an academic paper. It is part of a series based on the famous set of tapestries, The Lady and the Unicorn.
This is one of six monumental tapestries in the Museum of the Middle Ages in Paris. They were made for Jean le Viste, a magnate on the rise in the court of Charles VII, and are identifiable by his coat of arms. They are probably late fifteenth century, probably made in Brussels and very definitely a hugely expensive luxury item. Tracey Chevalier wrote a really good read novel about her imagined story of the making of them. Each tapestry shows a different sense along with the lady and the unicorn and a precious object associated with the sense. So taste has sugar, hearing has a small portable organ (with attendant small portable servant to power it) and sight has a mirror. The sixth, rather mysterious, piece, A mon seul desir, shows the lady either putting on a beautiful necklace or putting it away and abjuring worldly goods. I was so stunned by the size and quality of these French national treasures that I decided to think about what a young man on the rise through the world of high finance in the City might commission to impress visitors to his prestigious home. What luxury objects might be chosen in the early years of the twentieth century. I looked to The Financial Times How to Spend It supplement that comes out on the first weekend of the month for inspiration. For sight I chose the work of a shoe maker who makes shoes not in pairs but in threes and artfully distresses at least one of them. According to the article, Olga Berluti…
has something of the medieval alchemist about her, cooking up new patinas in her atelier, boiling up mixtures of cashmere and leather, trying out new techniques to create finishes unlike anybody else’s… For her things that have been worn have a romance, a glamour, a precious quality that nothing new can begin to replicate. As she points out, “In the past, men – both aristocrats and peasants – wore their clothes until they were threadbare. They would patch and darn these beloved pieces.” She sees these patchings as being “like so many acts of bravery”. “Il y a tout une histoire dans un soulier” (“there is a whole history in a sole”[sic]) is how she puts it. (HTSI, 133: 51)
It struck me that Olga had never been there at the end of a jumble sale when the really horrible smelly stuff is left. I thought the notion of buying beautifully finished distressed shoes in threes was a deliberate subversion of wealth into a pastiche of want and need.
But, as so often happens, the quilt took on a life of its own, and what I like about it is that it is completely different under different lighting conditions. Under artificial light the sequins in the background spring into life, while in daylight the texture of my approximation of Olga’s patching comes to the fore. So the quilt really does play with sight.
For those who are interested, the distressed elements are largely made with melted ‘friendly plastic’ with the odd bit of gold tulle pressed into it, and some handquilting following the lines of the printed bronze leatherette. The plastic and the leatherette were provided by my mother, the world’s best supplier of stuff for textiles.
For those who want to read my searing critique of the bonus culture five years avant la lettre, have a look at:
Rippin, A. (2007) ‘Economy of Magnificence: Organisation, Excess and Legitimacy’ Culture and Organisation, 13, 2, 115-129.