Killer Heels @The Brooklyn Museum

On an autumn trip to New York, my son wanted to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, after which we found ourselves exploring Brooklyn Heights (quaint, polluted), and then realised it was only a short metro ride to the Brooklyn Museum.

Here there was a lot of interesting stuff in the permanent collection, early colonial art, as well as a show of contemporary work by Brooklyn-based artists. But it was all put in the shade by the surprisingly informative and fabulously entertaining exhibition about the ‘art of the high-heeled shoe’.

Prada. Wedge Sandal in Rosso, Bianco, and Nero Leather, Spring/Summer 2012. Courtesy of Prada USA Corp. Photo: Jay Zukerkorn

Prada. Wedge Sandal in Rosso, Bianco, and Nero Leather, Spring/Summer 2012. Courtesy of Prada USA Corp. Photo: Jay Zukerkorn

The full title is Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe and it showcases a surprising amount you can do with such a humble implement as the shoe, an amazing amount. It showcases over 160 examples, from around the world, including some rare and precious historical artifacts.

Italian. Chopine, 1550–1650. Silk, metal. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Herman Delman, 1955. 2009.300.1494a, b. Brooklyn Museum photograph, Mellon Costume Documentation Project, Lea Ingold and Lolly Koon, photographers

Italian. Chopine, 1550–-1650. Silk, metal. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Herman Delman, 1955. Brooklyn Museum photograph, Mellon Costume Documentation Project, Lea Ingold and Lolly Koon, photographers

But the majority of exhibits are marvels of inventiveness contrived by a checklist of leading contemporary designers.

Zaha Hadid X United Nude. “NOVA,” 2013. Chromed vinyl rubber, kid napa leather, fiberglass. Courtesy of United Nude. Photo: Jay Zukerkorn. Chromed vinyl rubber, kid napa leather, fiberglass. Courtesy of United Nude. Photo: Jay Zukerkorn

Zaha Hadid X United Nude. “NOVA,” 2013. Chromed vinyl rubber, kid napa leather, fiberglass. Courtesy of United Nude. Photo: Jay Zukerkorn.

Apparently there is evidence of high heels from as long ago as ancient Greece and as far away as China and Japan.

Chinese. Manchu Woman's Shoe, 19th century. Cotton, embroidered satin-weave silk. Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Museum Collection, 34.1060a, b. Brooklyn Museum photograph, Sarah DeSantis, photographer

Chinese. Manchu Woman’s Shoe, 19th century. Cotton, embroidered satin-weave silk. Brooklyn Museum. Brooklyn Museum photograph, Sarah DeSantis, photographer

In fact, wherever there have been shoes, people have experimented with the effect you get by raising the soles and heels. Why?

What high heels do

According to the exhibition, high heels affect the wearer’s body thus – they:

  • push the chest out
  • lift the bottom
  • make the legs appear longer and therefore thinner
  • make the calves more taut and rounded
  • make the feet appear smaller

All in all, high heels make the wearer’s body seem less stumpy and clumpy (less like the body most of us actually possess) and taller, leaner, more agile and athletic, while emphasising bust and buttocks. In biological terms, they highlight a woman’s fertility, youth and fitness as a mate. On a cultural plane, they dramatise a woman’s sexuality.

In western culture, heels have come to be associated with empowering female sexuality, creating the classic stockings and suspenders ‘sexy’ look, so familiar from movies and posters. It is a short physical step – though quite a large psychological one – beyond this into the stilettoes-and-studs world of BDSM and fetish – once a kind of underground cult, but now popularised by the bestselling Shades of Grey novels – a world in which threatening heels are a key element of the dominating mistress.

Christian Louboutin. “Printz,” Spring/Summer 2013–14. Courtesy of Christian Louboutin. Photo: Jay Zukerkorn

Christian Louboutin. “Printz,” Spring/Summer 2013–14. Courtesy of Christian Louboutin. Photo: Jay Zukerkorn

Are all these levels of meaning invoked when a woman slips on her heels? Is the root of the pleasure which so many women take in wearing high heels because putting them on amounts to adopting a role, beginning a performance, outside of real life? With this one move, by slipping on one relatively simple item of wear, you can assume a dramatically different body shape and feel, as a result, a different person, a more gorgeous, glamorous, powerful person.

Short films

As well as spectacular shoes, the show includes six short films commissioned to take heels as a theme. The one I liked most was Smash by Marilyn Minter.

I quite liked Spike by Zach Gold, a little pop video-ey.

But I really enjoyed Scary Beautiful by Leanie van der Vyver. She made it as a satire on what happens when fashion gets out of control (there’s a five-minute film explaining her motivation, also on YouTube) but it is, without any commentary, a strange and haunting viewing experience, especially with the numb, bland, empty airport music accompaniment.

There’s also a great movietone newsreel with designers from the 1930s predicting what the woman of 2000 AD will wear. Watch out for the very last line of commentary, where the man of the future is predicted to be wearing a telephone and ‘containers for coins, keys and candies for cuties’.

Where can I buy one?

Fabulous shoes

Some of the designs were stunning. I especially liked the pagan, norse Stairway to heaven by Masyn Kushino, 2013. Also:

Vivienne Westwood. “Super Elevated Gillie,” 1993. Courtesy of Vivienne Westwood. Photo: Jay Zukerkorn

Vivienne Westwood. “Super Elevated Gillie,” 1993. Courtesy of Vivienne Westwood. Photo: Jay Zukerkorn

Having gone round this show slowly once, my son and I went off to explore the rest of the Brooklyn Museum, packed with interesting historical and colonial art as it is – but nothing could compare with the killer heels for vibrancy and humour, and so I found myself coming back for a second go-round.

Salvatore Ferragamo (Italian, 1898–1960). Platform Sandal, 1938. Leather, cork. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Salvatore Ferragamo, 1973 (1973.282.2). Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY

Salvatore Ferragamo (Italian, 1898–1960). Platform Sandal, 1938. Leather, cork. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Salvatore Ferragamo, 1973. Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY

The shoes are funny, clever, colourful, creative, flaming with imagination. Inspiring that something which has, at bottom, such a crude physiological function, so trivial as a shoe, can be transformed by the almost infinite power of the creative mind into an alternative universe of fantasy and fulfilment.

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