Killer Heels: The Art Of The High-Heeled Shoe (Brooklyn Museum)

Published on
April 2, 2015

If I made it to heaven, this is what it looked like. Shoes upon shoes of what seemed to have been some kind of immaculate conception of each designer and constructor of divine intercourse. From the ornate to the understated, the classical to the avant-garde, the sleek to the vulgar and erotic, there was no end to the spectrum of this elevated expression. I had wore my new pair of stilettos (black patent leather 6.5 inches) geared up for my trek into footwear enlightenment.

(Photo at entrance of Killer Heels Exhibition)

Entering the exhibition there were video projections of the full break down of the high heel construction process. On one side, the classic basic stiletto heel and on the opposite, the new modern 3-d printing process that is innovating unconventional ways of shoe construction. From there you pass by a huge screen of a short film by Zach Gold. There were also five other original short films commissioned for this exhibition that took the high heel as a conceptual starting point. These provocative films explored the cult status of the high-heeled shoe and its role in discourses of fantasy, power, and identity, as well as its high profile in visual culture. These films were spread out throughout the exhibit. This first one seen, by Zach Gold, was particularly striking, portraying these surreal and mystic characters in settings, relationships and scenes of alien and imaginative places all wearing crazy avant-garde heel designs by a collection of highly noted couture designers such as Alexander McQueen, Jean Paul Gautier, Christian Loubtain, Prada, etc. Zach’s four and half minute film features couture as sharp—literally—as it is cutting-edge, and a horde of digital effects, from CGI through Python-generated video distortion. I was left hypnotized. See for yourself!

Video by Zach Gold at entrance of exhibition:

This then lead into the actual high heels display and what seemed to be endless. More than 160 (I counted) spectacular contemporary and historical shoe designs play with the cultural and artistic possibilities of the high heel, use innovative or unexpected materials, and push the limits of functionality and beauty. The themes presented in this exhibition (in this order) were: Revival and Reinterpretation, Rising in the East, Glamour and Fetish, Architecture, Metamorphosis, and Space Walk. I will point out one thing, of the many, that intrigued me with each theme. I will also share with you direct passages from the exhibit.

Under Revival and Reinterpretation you were shown that change is the essence of fashion. It does not follow a strictly linear trajectory of unique moments; instead it consists of cyclical returns to earlier styles that may be reinterpreted or differentiated to some degree but remains recognizable in their formal lineaments. Old becomes new becomes old becomes new. Platforms, for example, are the oldest elevated shoe in history and they have reappeared most often in western fashion from low, clog-like versions worn by European men and women of the 12th century to the towering chopines worn by women in the 15th & 16th century in Italy and Spain. They were eclipsed though by high heels for centuries, and then made a series of comebacks in the 1930s, the 1970s, and again in the 1990s. Within this case of the platform shoe, we also see another entity revived and reinterpreted: masculinity; of course, the point I found most fascinating with this section. To become taller meant you could seem bigger, more powerful. It should be no secret then that the high heels were embraced by the aristocratic European men of the late 1500s who embraced high-heeled shoes for their exotic, masculine aura. Yes, in this period, high heels were considered masculine. Beyond that they were also a symbol of status. In the early 18th century, King Louis XIV established red heels as indispensable and exclusive features of male courtiers' dress code. By the early 1700s, however, "high heels were considered symbols of irrationality and thus men abandoned them to women, who had also eagerly adopted the style. Yet, when the platform shoes returned with a vengeance in the 1970s, men wore outrageous platforms, aggressively asserting their masculinity in emulation of glam rockers (celebrities or ones of high status) and the influential "Super Fly" style showcased in the 1972 Blaxploitation film of the same name. Once again, the elevated shoe sent a daring message about sexuality and thereby assumed prime importance in the construction of identity."

Photo of shoe worn by Jimi Hendrix Left: David Bowie

Loius XIV, King of France, 1701 Right: French shoe, 1760-75 made of silk & metal)

You might be wondering where in fact did platforms and high heels originate from. The next section "Rising in the East" explained that. Here is passage from exhibition:

"The origins of the platforms and high heels that have dominated western women's fashion footwear for centuries lie in the East. Elevated footwear can be seen in ancient Greek statues of Aphrodite and other idealized female figures, but the style is actually evidence of the Greek fascination for things Eastern, or "Oriental." In fact, the Greeks associated the Orient – primarily, their adversary Persia – with foreign luxury and excess, particularly in relation to women's fashion (including elevated footwear), which were decreed in many ancient treaties as dangerous and deceitful. Another Persian style, the heeled shoe worn by cavalry men to help keep their feet in the stirrups, entered the Western canon in the late 16th century on the feet of aristocratic men. At a time of burgeoning military and trade alliances with Persia against the Ottoman Empire, European men embraced the Persian heeled shoe and it's masculine military prowess and adventure."

Museum of Aphrodite (Eastern) nude seated; 1st century C.E.

Portrait of Shah Abbas I and a Page (Persian) from an albulm, 1632-33. Notice the heels

With the wood stilt-clogs called "nalin" we also see another influence from the East. These elevated footwear were worn by women in bath houses of the Ottoman Empire to keep their feet high and dry above the wet floors. "Because of their association with the pampered world of the harem, nalin became a potent symbol of feminine luxury in the West, particularly in Venice, a city with clean close connections to the Islamic world. The elevated form of the Near Eastern nalin, in turn, may have influenced chopines, the high platform is that both noblewomen and courtesans of the Renaissance Venice wore under their long gowns. Although their purpose has been frequently described as protective – elevating a woman's feet and garments above the filthy street – recent scholarship suggest that chopines where in fact primarily an intimate foundational accessory, worn under skirts to create a taller, more elongated figure. They remained largely invisible when worn, yet were integral to their wearer's conspicuous display of wealth: their height meant that already costly dresses required extra fabric to reach the ground." You can see this in the picture of the Venetian woman below.

Syrian, Nalin platform sandals, 1875   Below: Italin, Chopines, circa 1600

Venetian Woman with Movable Skirt (flap down, bottom; flap up, top). Italian, 1563. Engravings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

It was shown that as centuries of trade, war, imperial expansion, and tourism have brought encounters between East and West, the Western fascination with foreign or "exotic" fashions has never faltered. You could even see from the many modern European and American designers of today how their shoes were inspired by Eastern culture. In any case, it was made apparent that to don a pair of platform/elevated shoes was not something of the ordinary nor commonplace. It was made for those opulent.