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From Queen Victoria’s dancing slippers to socks made from human hair, the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto chronicles history through some of the world’s most fascinating footwear.

After travelling around the globe and seeing traditional shoe designs being replaced by more Western styles, founder Sonja Bata began to perceive shoes as more than just a fashion choice. They can be  a glimpse into a culture’s climate and social attitudes. 

Her collection soon outgrew her storage space, and she established the Bata Shoe Museum Foundation in 1979. The downtown Toronto museum opened in 1995, with an architectural exterior that’s meant to resemble an open shoe box, the copper lid resting just slightly askew. The 39,000sqft building also pays homage to the craft of cobbling, with leatherwork signs and wooden tools.  

The four-storey museum houses more than 12,500 shoes from different cultures spanning 4,500 years of history, including pairs of 16th-century Venetian platform shoes known as chopines (which range between 15 and 50cm in height, sometimes too tall for a woman to walk unaccompanied), bear fur boots worn by the Japanese samurai and golden stilettos by modern designer Manolo Blahnik. The museum features a number of celebrity shoes as well, like Shaquille O’Neal’s oversized basketball sneakers, Elton John’s silver platform boots and Elvis Presley’s blue suede shoes.

Admission usually costs $14 Canadian dollars a person, but on Thursday evenings from 5 pm to 8 pm the museum is pay-what-you-can, with a suggested donation of $5, giving all visitors a chance to put their best foot forward.

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