The Art Exhibition That May Knock Your Socks Off

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  • People in 19th century northern Afghanistan wore these leather boot socks under their shoes while out walking or riding. But inside their homes, they padded around on carpet wearing the soft-soled socks.
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    People in 19th century northern Afghanistan wore these leather boot socks under their shoes while out walking or riding. But inside their homes, they padded around on carpet wearing the soft-soled socks.
  • This is a replica of footwear worn by the 5,300-year-old Neolithic man discovered in the Alps in 1991.  Grass "socks" wicked away moisture and added comfort.
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    This is a replica of footwear worn by the 5,300-year-old Neolithic man discovered in the Alps in 1991. Grass "socks" wicked away moisture and added comfort.
  • These blue stockings would have been fashionable during the mid-18th century.
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    These blue stockings would have been fashionable during the mid-18th century.
  • Althea Crome, who knit the clothes for the title character in the film Coraline, took 100 hours to hand-knit these 1.5-inch socks for the exhibit.
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    Althea Crome, who knit the clothes for the title character in the film Coraline, took 100 hours to hand-knit these 1.5-inch socks for the exhibit.
  • Toe socks were popular with American teens in the mid-'70s.
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    Toe socks were popular with American teens in the mid-'70s.
  • These 19th century Croatian socks are intricately embroidered and include metal and fabric sequins.
    Hide caption
    These 19th century Croatian socks are intricately embroidered and include metal and fabric sequins.
  • These 13th century socks, made by the ancient Puebloan peoples who lived in the Four Corners region of the U.S., were made of human hair knotted together.
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    These 13th century socks, made by the ancient Puebloan peoples who lived in the Four Corners region of the U.S., were made of human hair knotted together.

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There's a saying: Don't judge a man until you've walked a mile in his shoes. But the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto hopes to go a level deeper.

The museum's yearlong exhibit "Socks: Between You and Your Shoes" opened this month.

"Socks are this seemingly humble part of our everyday wardrobe," curator Elizabeth Semmelhack tells NPR's Michele Norris. "And so I thought it was sort of high time to investigate them."

A Sock Anthropology

The exhibit is a walk through history. It begins with a replica of a shoe worn by the 5,300-year-old Neolithic man discovered in the Alps in 1991. The "socks" were bunches of grass stuffed into the shoes.

"It turns out that many people around the world — before the invention of knitting or even weaving and sewing — they would stuff grass into their shoes or boots as a means of wicking away moisture and adding a bit of comfort to their everyday going about," Semmelhack says.

The exhibit also includes socks worn by nobility: One pair belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte, another was worn by Queen Victoria.

The queen's stockings "are very, very pale pink, so they probably date to early in her reign," Semmelhack says. "After the death of her husband, Prince Albert, she began to wear only black."

The exhibit also features more modern sock trends, like toe socks of the '70s, and bobby socks from the late '40s and '50s. And there's a sock puppet theater.

Definition Of A Sock

But which came first: the shoe or the sock?

"Well, I actually spent quite a bit of time trying to define for myself what a sock was," Semmelhack says. "And I decided that a sock was something that came between you and your shoe."

So, she argues, it's a simple answer: the shoe came first.

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