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.
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.
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.
“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
For the exhibition, the Brooklyn Museum commissioned six original short films that take the high heel as a conceptual starting point. 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.
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.
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.
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.
Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe
September 10, 2014–March 1, 2015
Killer Heels explores fashion’s most provocative accessory. From the high platform chopines of sixteenth-century Italy to the glamorous stilettos on today’s runways and red carpets, the exhibition looks at the high-heeled shoe’s rich and varied history and its enduring place in our popular 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, Christian Louboutin, Alexander McQueen, André Perugia, Prada, Elsa Schiaparelli, Noritaka Tatehana, Vivienne Westwood, and Pietro Yantorny.
Presented alongside the objects in the exhibition are six specially commissioned short films inspired by high heels. The filmmakers are Ghada Amer and Reza Farkhondeh, Zach Gold, Steven Klein, Nick Knight, Marilyn Minter, and Rashaad Newsome.
Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe is organized by Lisa Small, Curator of Exhibitions, Brooklyn Museum. A fully illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition.