On exhibit from September 10, 2014 through February 15, 2015 at The Brooklyn Museum is “Killer Heels,” a show that explores the rich and varied history of the shoe and its enduring place in our culture’s imagination.
As fashion statement, fetish object, instrument of power, and outlet of artistic expression for both the designer and the wearer, throughout the ages the high-heeled shoe has gone through many shifts in style and symbolism. Deadly sharp stilettos, architecturally inspired wedges and platforms, and a number of artfully crafted shoes that defy categorization are featured among the more than 160 historical and contemporary heels on loan from designers, from the renowned Brooklyn Museum costume collection housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and from the Bata Shoe Museum.
Designers and design houses represented in Killer Heels include Manolo Blahnik, Chanel, Salvatore Ferragamo, Zaha Hadid X United Nude, Iris van Herpen X United Nude (I blogged about their multiple collaborations here), Christian Louboutin, Alexander McQueen, André Perugia, Prada, Elsa Schiaparelli, Noritaka Tatehana, Vivienne Westwood, and Pietro Yantorny.
The shoes aren’t just decorative or bizarre. In addition to a nice historical background, the exhibit includes shoes designed with unusual functionality, such as the collaboration between artist Sputniko and shoe designer Mayasa Kushino. They created the high heel shown above in response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011. The shoes are covered with the flowers of a plant whose seeds are known to absorb radioactive substances from the soil. With each step the wearer takes, the heel mechanically plants such seeds in the ground.
above: French boots from 1900-1920s, made of leather and cellulose.
above: Christian Louboutin’s kinky red leather thigh high studded Boots
A little shoe history from the exhibit
Platform shoes called chopines, like these made of exquisitely decorated cork or wood, were fashionable in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italy. They are often described as having been worn to keep women’s garments from touching the dirty streets. Recent scholarship suggests, however, that they were worn as part of conspicuous public displays of wealth and status. Higher chopines meant that gowns required more expensive, sumptuous fabrics to reach the ground. Some chopines were as high as twenty inches.
above: Italian. Chopine, 1550–1650. Silk, metal. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Herman Delman, 1955. Photo: Lea Ingold and Lolly Koon, Mellon Costume Documentation Project, Brooklyn Museum
Once the structural integrity of the thin stiletto heel was assured through the use of an internal steel rod, designers in the later 1950s and the 1960s experimented with variations on its profile and position. Roger Vivier contributed some of the most enduring architectural and sculptural stiletto silhouettes, including the “virgule” (comma) heel.
above: Roger Vivier. “Virgule Houndstooth,” Fall 2014. Calf hair. Courtesy of Roger Vivier, Paris. Photo: Jay Zukerkorn
For centuries, extreme footwear has signified a woman’s status and identity in Asian cultures. When the Manchu minority came to power in China in 1644 (Qing dynasty, 1644–1911), they forbade their women to bind their feet like the majority Han Chinese, for whom bound feet represented the epitome of feminine refinement and eligibility. Instead, Manchu women distinguished themselves by wearing high platform shoes such as these. They produced a halting gait similar to that caused by bound feet, which was still considered attractive in Manchu culture.
above: Chinese. Manchu Woman’s Shoe, Qing Dynasty, 19th century. Cotton, embroidered satin-weave silk. Brooklyn Museum Collection, Photo: Sarah DeSantis, Brooklyn Museum
Delicate pointed toes peeping out beneath the voluminous skirts made a woman’s foot appear tiny, and high, slender heels added to her allure, as this 1753 British rhyme suggests: “Mount on French heels when you go to a ball, / ‘Tis the fashion to totter and show you can fall.”
Scholars believe that the heeled shoe originated in Persia, where cavalrymen wore heeled boots to keep their feet in the stirrups. Aristocratic European men of the late 1500s embraced high-heeled shoes for their exotic, masculine aura. By the early 1700s, however, high heels were considered symbols of irrationality. Men thus abandoned them to women, who had also eagerly adopted the style.
above: French. Shoes, 1690–1700. Silk, leather. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1906. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY
above: Roger Vivier and Christian Dior for House of Dior, 1960
Designers and manufacturers like Salvatore Ferragamo, Roger Vivier, and Herman Delman reintroduced the raised sole to footwear fashion in the 1930s. Ferragamo designed these rainbow sandals in 1938, probably inspired by the flamboyant and colorful costumes often seen in American musicals. One year later, Judy Garland sang “Over the Rainbow” in the movie The Wizard of Oz, and since then, this famous design is often associated with her.
above: Salvatore Ferragamo (Italian, 1898–1960). Platform Sandal, 1938. Leather, cork. image© The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY
above: Walter Steiger. “Unicorn Tayss,” Spring 2013. Courtesy of Walter Steiger. Photo: Jay Zukerkorn
“I wanted to make a shoe with an invisible heel. I looked down and there it was: The Eames chair leg from the chair I was sitting on. . . . What if the heel pretended to be not a part of the shoe but be part of the surroundings? This way the heel would be in disguise and in a way disappear. . . . The chair became a part of the shoe by the simple gesture of remix in design.” — Rem D. Koolhaas, United Nude
above: Rem D. Koolhaas. “Eamz,” 2004. Courtesy of United Nude. Photo: Jay Zukerkorn
Winde Rienstra favors sustainable and natural materials for her sculptural, handcrafted shoes, which she describes as existing on the boundary between clothing and art object. This faceted wooden platform references and transforms the designs of toothed and solid geta.
above: Winde Rienstra. “Bamboo Heel,” 2012. Bamboo, glue, plastic cable ties. Courtesy of Winde Rienstra. Photo: Jay Zukerkorn
A look at several other shoes in the exhibit:
above: Jantaminiau’s “L’Image Tranquille,” 2013. (Handcrafted by René van den Bezrg.)
above: André Perugia’s “Evening Sandals” 1928-29, made of leather and metal.
above: Cat Potter’s “Pernilla, Look 5.”
above: Masaya Kushino’s Chicken Shoe I
above: Masaya Kushino’s Chicken Shoe II
above: Chau Har Lee’s “Blade Heel,” from 2010, made of perspex, stainless steel and leather.
above: Victor’s platform sandal, circa 1940, America, made of leather.
above: Miu Miu’s “Cammeo Baroque” leather wedge, Fall/Winter 2006.
above: Noritaka Tatehana’s “Atom,” 2012-13, made from faux leather.
above: Nova, Zaha Hadid’s collaboration with United Nude and Cyberella
above: Shoes and chair from United Nude
above: Iris van Herpen X United Nude’s, “Beyond Wilderness,” from 2013.
above: Balenciaga’s block heel, Spring 2013.
above: designer unknown
above: Vivienne Westwood’s “Super Elevated Gillie,” 1993
above: Casuccio e Scalera per Loris Azzaro’s sandal, 1974–79 made of leather, synthetic material and cotton.
above: Céline’s trompe l’oeil pumps.
above:Prada Flame sandals
above various Prada Platforms
above: Nicholas Kirkwood’s pumps, Spring/Summer 2013, made of suede with gold and clear Swarovski crystals.
above: Aperlai’s “Geisha Lines” shoe, Fall 2013
Six Specially Commissioned Films
Presented alongside the objects in the exhibition are six specially commissioned short films inspired by high heels. These provocative films explore the cult status of the high-heeled shoe and its roles in discourses of fantasy, power, and identity, as well as its high profile in visual culture. The filmmakers are Ghada Amer and Reza Farkhondeh, Zach Gold, Steven Klein, Nick Knight, Marilyn Minter, and Rashaad Newsome.
above: Clockwise from top left (all details): Ghada Amer and Reza Farkhondeh. A Pause in An Abstract Painting, 2014. Preparatory drawing for the film Higher Me, 2014. Acrylic, pencil, tape and gel medium on paper. Photo: Brian Buckley; Steven Klein. Still from Untitled, 791, 2014. Video, color, sound; 7 min. 48 sec. Courtesy of Steven Klein Studio. © Steven Klein 2014; Zach Gold. Still from Spike, 2014. Video, color, sound. Courtesy of Zach Gold; Rashaad Newsome. Still from Knot, 2014. Single-channel video, color, sound. Courtesy of the artist; Nick Knight. Study for La Douleur Exquise, 2014. Photo courtesy of Nick Knight and SHOWstudio; Marilyn Minter. Still from Smash, 2014. Video, color, sound. Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94
above: A clip of Sophia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antooinette is paired with shoes by Christian Louboutin
above: The show also features “Higher Me,” a video installation by Reza Farkhondeh and Ghada Amer.
“Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe” runs through Feb. 15 at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, at Prospect Park; brooklynmuseum.org.
The Exhibition Book:
Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe is a lovely book to accompany the exhibition.