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At Toronto's Bata Shoe Museum, footwear opens a window on the lives and lore of peoples throughout the ages
Footnotes-Outer row, from left: Embroidered silk shoe (c. 1860) from China for bound "lotus" foot; black lacquer wooden clog with tatami insole from 19th-century Japan; elevated traditional Korean clog; knee- high boot worn by Tibetan lamas and noblemen; Inuit sealskin kamik; 19th-century Middle Eastern woman's stilt sandal; man's shoe with upturned toe from Iraq; Senegalese leather mule; concave rawhide sandal (c. 1900) from Uganda; painted wood and leather Bolivian sandal. Inner row, from bottom left: Handmade wingtip brown oxford (1995); shoe with fanciful elongated tip made for upperclass men in India; pom-pommed mules worn by Pakistani women for traversing sand dunes; contemporary catfish-skin shoe from Iceland; Zairian royal sandal with carved toe knob; elegant black suede pump by famed Italian designer Salvatore Ferragamo.
Clad in a designer suit and a soft silk scarf, sonja bata looks like she shops in the exclusive boutiques of Toronto's Bloor Street, not on an icebound island in the Canadian Arctic or in the dusty market towns of mountainous Tibet. But Bata, businesswoman, philanthropist and founder of North America's largest and most comprehensive shoe museum, will go just about anywhere to get the right shoe.
In 1992, she traveled by chartered plane to the Arctic community of Grise Fiord on Ellesmere Island, one of the most remote, punishing places on earth. "I'd heard of an elderly Inuit woman there who was known for making bearded sealskin boots, or 'kamiks,' the traditional way," says Bata. "I was told that she even used sinew for the stitching. Nowadays many women use dental floss. Of course I wanted to commission a pair for our collection."
Bata found the old woman without difficulty. "She was very wrinkled, with bright-black eyes," Bata recalls. "And she kept completely silent while her daughter translated my proposal. She looked so serious I was sure that she would turn me down. Then all at once she started to roar with laughter. Her daughter joined in, and I did, too. Finally the old lady wiped her eyes and spoke, pointing to her mouth. The daughter translated: 'My mother says that chewing the sealskin is very hard. Therefore her price to make the boots is a new set of teeth!'"
That unusual bargain, though apparently made in jest, is just one of many that Bata, a collector of footwear both ordinary and extraordinaire, has struck during more than 50 years of far-flung forays aimed at amassing the superb collection now housed in the Toronto museum that bears her name. Opened in May 1995, the Bata Shoe Museum celebrates footwear and shoemaking not as a footnote to fashion but as a window on human history. Its collection includes such treasures as woven funerary shoes from a royal tomb in ancient Thebes, 15th-century German foot armor, Queen Victoria's mourning boots and a rare pair of Inuit boots made of eider skin. Also featuring such crowd- pleasers as Picasso's zebra-striped boot and Madonna's hot-pink platform pumps, the museum has gained international attention for its provocative, sometimes irreverent treatment of an offbeat subject.
Explaining how she came to acquire more than 10,000 shoes and related artifacts that span 5,000 years and represent every continent on the globe, Bata says simply, "I married a shoe man." Her husband is the international shoe manufacturer and retailer Thomas Bata. The Batas, for generations the village cobblers of Zlin, Czechoslovakia, had made their fortune by mechanizing their country's shoe industry, ultimately developing the firm into a world supplier of footwear. In 1939, as the Nazis advanced across Europe, Thomas Bata relocated the company to Canada.
When the couple wed in 1946, Sonja was studying architecture in her native Switzerland. It wasn't long, however, before she became …