Sunday, January 4, 2015

KILLER HEELS: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe!

KILLER HEELS!  We have to open by saying this is a misnomer.  There were, to be sure, some killer heels at this marvelous exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, but there were also platforms, shoes with no heels, and shoes we couldn't possibly describe.  So perhaps a better name would have been KILLER SHOES.  But sex sells, thus the stiletto you see us posing with (just as we did at The Museum at FIT's February 2013 Shoe Obsession exhibition).

The show is organized by Lisa Small, Curator of Exhibitions and exhibition design is by Matthew Yokobosky, Chief Designer.  Bottom line:  go totter off on your very own stilettos to see it before it closes on February 15th!

Behind us you can see a killer opening video called SPIKE, by Zach Gold, commissioned by the Museum for the show.  We are absolutely delighted that we were able to find it on the internet and can reproduce it for you here.  It is beyond stunning, and if you don't want to watch it more than once, well… there's just no pleasing some people.  Still, if you look carefully, you'll see that it doesn't have all that much to do with shoes.  Shoes do get honorable mention, but you'll be so dazzled by the video, you won't care what the subject is. (Be sure to click on the four outward pointing arrows next to the HD at the bottom of the video.  That's how you'll get it to show at the correct size.)

Sprinkled here and there in the exhibition are photographs demonstrating that elevated shoes are far from a new phenomenon. Between her towering figured headdress and her towering platforms, it's clear this unidentified woman from ancient times had a very powerful role in her society.

In this 18th century painting by Liotard (so high on the wall that we had to photograph it on an angle, our 7' tall intern having taken the day off),  titled Turkish Woman with Her Servant, both women are in elevated shoes.  (According to the wall text, this was to make it easier to navigate the wet floors of the public baths.)  It is interesting that the servant's shoes are lower - probably in keeping with her lower status, and also probably enabling her to function more efficiently.

What did the well dressed 18th century European man or woman wear out in the rain, you may ask.  They slipped their shoes into pattens, such as this one - platforms in wood and leather, and protected from the wet ground by an iron ring.

There was also a forbidding photo of Cixi, Dowager Empress of China (d. 1908).  In this close-up of her shoes, under her hem of dyed fur, you can see that her highly elevated column-like shoes, clearly not made with the expectation of much walking, are covered in strands of pearls.  Although westerners are familiar with China's foot binding tradition during this period, the binding of girls' feet was a Han Chinese practice.  The imperial family, who were Manchu Chinese, did not follow this tradition.

Two of the most charming shoes in the exhibition were by Andre Pegugia for Denise Poiret, wife of the great couturier.  This stunning and amazingly detailed shoe, in seed beads, depicts Madame Poiret herself.  The accompanying shoe shows Monsieur Poiret in evening cape, cane and spats.

Several years ago, in an earlier post, we had the pleasure of showing you shoes by the inventive Steven Arpad.  This exhibition included this 1939 Arpad shoe.  The lighting for Killer Heels was very difficult to deal with, so rather than show you our highly reflective photo, here is a stock photo from the archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  That's a carving of a hand painted ram's head you see, and seen head on it's even more breathtaking than from the side.

If you are a member of Pinterest, you should take a look at Laquita Matthews' Pinterest board of ARPAD shoes for more of his fabulous designs.

Moving into the more recent past, there were the tongue-in-cheek painted leather feet shoes by Isabel Canovas, reminiscent of a well known work by Magritte.

Many designers were clearly challenging the definition of shoes.  In this Gaultier shoe, playfully called Mille Pattes (millepede), the designer seems to ask 'why must a shoe have only one stiletto, at the back?  Why can't it have several stilettos of varying sizes?'

Aoi Kotsuhiroi seems to ask whether a shoe might simply be an art object. This pair has been lacquered in the centuries-old Japanese negoro technique, in which the top layers of red (cinnabar) lacquer wear away slowly and unevenly to expose, here and there, the black underlayers.  The heels are made of horn, the body of cherry wood, and the thongs of vegetable-tanned leather.

Viktor & Rolf ask the question 'where does a shoe begin and end, and why must it follow the form of the foot?'  The bow and gathered pink material juxtaposed with the vertiginous heel simultaneously play with stereotypes about femininity and sexuality.

This intriguing shoe (many labels were frustratingly out of order, so we can't tell you with any certainty whose creation this is) is highly flirtatious, playing with notions of what is hidden and what is revealed.  Most of the foot is wrapped in material, but because the material is transparent, much like a black stocking, it could be said to be more erotic than an exposed foot.  The frills cover the ankle, but at the same time they emphasize its femininity, and draw the viewer's eye, rather than conceal and protect the wearer' modesty.

The Brooklyn Museum had the inspired idea of adding several videos that refer fairly explicitly to shoe fetishism.  A 1903 film clip shows a young woman trying on shoes and eventually passionately kissing the attentive shoe salesman (to the horror of her escort, who beats him with her umbrella).  There is a short video of Betty Page, in black stockings and garters, lovingly admiring a pair of heels, and donning them with much fanfare.  Here, the camera is so focused on its subject that it doesn't mind cropping Betty's head or leg.  (The video in the show is quite sharp.  Only this picture is blurry.)

In another, far more modern video, looping endlessly in a darkened cubicle, we see only long legs in what surely are killer heels, scratching vindictively at a red car hood.  No words are spoken, but the message is abundantly clear.

Another very interesting video that also featured disembodied legs shod in extremely intimidating shoes replaced the car with two men - one supine, one ominously masked in the distance.  The videographer could have chosen someone's well appointed Manhattan loft, but instead seems to have preferred a suburban rec room, adding to the charged atmosphere.  The men are so hunky, the viewer is left wondering why they are putting up with this treatment - unless, perhaps, they are all part of an elaborate role play, and there is a fourth party watching all of this.  Oh, wait - are WE the fourth party???!!!!

With such a wide range of eras, styles and fabrics, it was difficult to process all of the information presented. While the curators divided the exhibition into five sections, we made our own mental taxonomies to sort and describe some of the categories of shoes. Jean's first category included historical shoes and those which heavily reference those roots. This Manchu woman's shoe is from the 19th century Qing Dynasty. The tall wooden base references the Italian and French noblewomen's chopines and the height indicates the individual's elevated station in society.

This is a 2013 version of Vivienne Westwood's leather and wood Rocking Horse Ballerina shoe from her Spring/Summer 1985 Mini-Crini collection runway show, which combines the silhouettes of a ribboned ballerina's pointe shoe and a solid raised-sole geta. They were meant to complement the swaying movement of the collection's bell-shaped mini crinoline skirts, which resembled ballet tutus.

Japanese geta, or wood-thonged sandals, with a slanted front like these are known as senryu (lucky) geta. Earliest forms prevented farmers' feet from sinking in muddy rice fields. Elevating feet and garments above the ground remained a geta function as it evolved into sandals worn by priests for religious ceremonies. By the Edo period (1615-1868), they were widely worn by the urban elite. With late 19th century industrialization enabling production, geta became japan's most common shoe style.

These 1984 Japanese sandals made of wood, velvet tatami, lacquer, bamboo, glue and plastic cable ties are similar to the tall geta worn during the Edo period by the oiran, Japan's highest ranking courtesans. Both geisha and oiran served as hostesses and entertainers but oiran were also paid for their sexual services. A common site in Edo's entertainment district was the oiran dochu, a procession of a well-dressed oiran and her attendants on their way to meet a wealthy client. Her high geta required the oiran to walk in a stylized figure-eight pattern. This modern geta was made for an oiran dochu (courtesan's procession) performance, still a popular attraction today.

The show's curators pointed out that delicate pointed toes sticking out beneath the voluminous skirts made a woman's foot appear tiny, with high slender heels only adding to the allure as a 1753 British rhyme suggests: "Mount on French heels when you go to a ball,/'Tis the fashion to totter and show you can fall."

Salvatore Ferragamo's 1938 leather and cork platform sandal was aptly displayed next to Jarvis W. Rockwell's Rocky Color Cone Stacking Toy designed in that same year.

This Cammeo Baroque Leather Wedge from Miu Miu's Fall/winter 2006 collection evokes 18th century Rococo mirrored and ornate furnishings similar to the adjacent flamboyant Rococo Revival table.

Saks Fifth Avenue's platform sandals circa 1940 are made of silk and jute. War-time rationing of leather forced many designers to experiment with new materials such as jute, straw and raffia.  Despite men's complaints that the chunky platform style was not as alluring as the slender high heel, platforms became extremely popular in the 1940s and their popularity extends to the present.

There's something about a red shoe ... These red suede cut-out platform wedge sandals date from 1940.

These red leather and satin lace-ups from 1938-40 have a dramatically undercut heel that looks ultra-modern.  Some 16th century chopines also had this feature.

Salvatore Ferragamo's 1937 red and gold leather and suede sandals look as modern today as they did nearly 80 years ago.

From the sublime to the ridiculous!

The Mad Max award goes to German designer Iris Schieferstein's aptly named 2006 "Horse Shoes 3" which are constructed of real horse hair and hooves, wood and zippers.

The  Emmett Kelly award goes to these shiny red Spring Shoes which look like something out of Cirque du Soleil meets Bozo the Clown!

Vivienne Westwood's 1993 slender and graceful Super Elevated Gillies were among the most provocative and perhaps had the tallest heels in the show.

Georgian designer Tamar Areshidze's 2011 Levitating Shoe, which looks more like furniture than footwear, is made of wood, resin, leather, suede and PVC.

The 2010 Flat Pack Shoe (for Moon Life Project) by Dutch designer Rem D. Koolhaas (nephew of the architect of the same name) for United Nude was created as part of a project by artist Alicia Framis about concepts for traveling to and living in space.  The shoes, which come flat-packed, are made of lightweight and slotted carbon-fiber pieces that fit together.  It's nice to know that space travelers will be chicly attired!

This is just a small sample of the pieces in the show, to give you a flavor of the range of styles and designs on display. There were hundreds of pairs of shoes we didn't get to show you. If you can't get to the show, get the catalogue on line from the Museum Store.

We wanted to end with stills from another visually arresting video -- Marilyn Minter's 2014 "Smash".  A collaboration with the Brooklyn Museum and Salon 94, the video consists of close-ups of a pair of silver feet clad in silver heels langorously dancing in a silvery metallic rainstorm. The only color comes from red scratching through purposely primitive and positively repellent-looking nails by Scott Campbell.  The effect is absolutely mesmerizing.

With each slow-mo stomp of the foot, the water splashes, puddles are displaced and periodically some of the jewels fall off the heavily decorated shoes. Loved it!


  1. Ahh, the video is so haunting and brilliant. And the Mme. Poiret shoes - what art! Thanks for letting us in on the beauty. xo

  2. I always appreciate your well-researched commentary on exhibits like this! Another fabulous show I'm missing :( Wish I could wear those Westwood "Rocking Horse Ballerina" shoes.

  3. What fascinating stuff you show us! In his Spring 2015 show, Karl L. had most, if not all, the models wearing flats. The models walked gracefully and energetically on the runway and looked great. High heels are killers of grace, energy and foot health.

  4. Shoes are almost as fascinating as hats! I am totally enamored by your post and the video was breathtaking!

  5. This is a interesting blog!!!!!!!!!!!!

  6. I love this post :D thanks for sharing it

  7. i loved your post...thanks for sharing..