Shoe collection no footling pursuit

Collecting shoes came naturally to Sonja Bata.

As a young bride, she shopped diligently, buying scores of shoes that she then handed out to designers at Bata factories all over the world as aids for developing new lines.

As Mrs. Bata became more knowledgeable about different kinds of footwear, the leap from buying to collecting was a natural progression.

“Shoes tell you more about people and their history than any other artifact,” says Mrs. Bata, whose collection, started after her 1946 marriage to shoemaker Thomas J. Bata, has grown to some 8,000 pairs of shoes.

There are wooden Egyptian sandals with big toe-knobs made in 2,500 B.C. There are 17th-century leather cavalier boots. There are straw boots from the Ukraine, embroidered animal hide boots from Afghanistan, brass shoes from Korea and workingmen’s clogs from 19th-century Europe.

There are celebrity shoes for bunions: a pair of black satin boots worn by Queen Victoria, garish sequined platform boots worn by Elton John, pink ballet slippers worn by Karen Kain, hand-tooled cowboy boots worn by Robert Redford. There is also a Terry Fox running shoe.

There are shoes worn by Venetian courtesans, by Japanese geishas, by U.S. infantry soldiers. There are pairs of the grotesquely tiny shoes worn by Chinese women whose feet were bound to make them more attractive.

There is also the most comprehensive assortment of footwear worn by North American Indians and the native peoples who inhabit the world’s circumpolar regions.

You name them, Sonja Bata has them.

Needless to say, the collection long ago outgrew the Batas’ spacious Bridle Path residence and had to be moved to the Bata headquarters in Don Mills where the shoes sit on shelves in a climate-controlled area of the basement.

But, given the historical and anthropological significance of her collection, Mrs. Bata believes it would be a shame to keep the best running shoes for plantar fasciitis under wraps, as it were.

“When you get shoes of historical interest – coronation shoes or wedding shoes of famous people – you can’t help but to dream back to that period and wonder what was it really like, what was the ceremony like, who was there, what was the whole environment like.

“So the challenge in designing the shoe museum is to put that across to the viewer. We can’t just put these historic shoes into a glass case and let people read the labels. If we did they would have great difficulties relating to them,” Mrs. Bata says. “It cannot be static. It must be exciting, people-oriented.”

So in 1979, she set up a foundation for the express purpose of establishing the first shoe museum in the Western Hemisphere. To date, her efforts to get the $6-million project off the drawing boards have been stymied – first by anti-apartheid groups critical of Bata Ltd.’s employment practices in South Africa, then by bureaucratic red tape from Toronto’s City Council.

In March, the Ontario Municipal Board approved a mid-town hotel complex that, pending the granting of building permits from City Council, will contain the Bata shoe museum. Says Mrs. Bata: “It will be a world-class museum that I feel will be popular. After all, shoes are something that everyone has to have and to which everyone can relate.”

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