A new show celebrates our obsession with shoes

It might, as the saying goes, be unwise to criticise someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes, but looking at the beautiful, extraordinary and sometimes plain terrifying array of footwear in Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, this summer's fashion exhibition at London's Victoria & Albert museum, the only possible conclusion to draw is that humankind is and has ever been a bunch of lunatics who completely lose their heads when it comes to their feet.

Going a bit mad because of fabulous shoes is a familiar refrain through centuries of fiction, from Cinderella's ugly stepsisters lopping off toes to

fit the glass slipper to Carrie Bradshaw, Sarah Jessica Parker's character from the Sex and the City TV series, lamenting that having spent $40,000 on shoes – mostly her beloved Manolos – she had nowhere to live.

But what this delightful exhibition shows is that such foot-related folly is equally true in real life and that our modern passion for pretty or shocking shoes is nothing new. Its curator, Helen Persson, came up with the concept while exploring the museum's collection of Indian footwear.

"I found these amazing shoes that were gilded and tasseled and covered with pearls," she says. "They looked like something created by Roger Vivier. It made me wonder who these people were, and why they were wearing these shoes. I realised that even across different cultures and periods of history, we are exactly the same. We love shoes that say, 'Look at me! I don't need to worry about working or walking'."

There are chopines, from Venice c1600, which are little kid slippers fastened atop a wooden stalk that lifted its wearer's skirt hems above the mud; there are 18th-century Indian shoes with extravagantly long, curled-back toes, tiny Chinese shoes for bound feet and, equally shudder-inducing, the ballet shoes designed for Moira Shearer in the film The Red Shoes.

There are ballet-fetish shoes, with their toes en pointe and heels so high that no wearer can stand unassisted, let alone walk, and Zaha Hadid's Nova shoes, which seem to challenge the laws of physics with their cantilevered, unsupported, 16cm heel.

With glorious improbability, the exhibition is sponsored by Clarks, maker of thumpingly sensible shoes, and The Worshipful Company of Cordwainers, though Agent Provocateur has added its support and glamour.

But still, how is it that otherwise sane women – and men, too, just look at the winkle-pickers – abandon all sense when it comes to fashionable footwear? Surviving pointy medieval shoes show wear patterns that make it clear that their owners, too, suffered from bunions and hammer toes.

As Persson points out, shoes are powerful indicators of gender, status, identity, taste and sexual preference; they project an image of who we want to be. "It's that sensation when you put them on, of how your body changes," she says. "When I'm wearing high heels, I feel like I can kick some ass even if I can hardly walk. Wearing flats I feel I can run, jump. Shoes have this transformative power. We just know if we get the right pair of shoes, things will change, we will get what we want."